Monday, November 04, 2013

Revision: Less Is More

So, you’ve written a book and you’re ready to polish your words until they shine. And then you hear the phrase “Less is more.” But what does that mean? This is one of the mantras all writers have heard, but it’s not always explained.

The short answer is that you don’t write three words where one will do. Okay, but doesn’t that risk making your writing flat and lifeless? Possibly. It all depends on which words you choose, and that’s pretty much the key to all good writing. You choose the words that work hard to convey exactly what you have in mind. This means that you don’t use three sufficient words if you can use one perfect word.

For example:
1) He quietly went up the stairs, so afraid that Dad would kill him if he knew what time it was.
2) He slunk up the stairs. Dad would kill him if he knew what time it was.

The words in the first example don’t work very hard. They convey the same meaning, but not as sharply. The second example does the same job in fewer words, and they bring us closer into the story.

The first sentence also has a filler word: ‘so.’ Words like but, and, just, really, very, like, so, etc. aren’t necessary most of the time. Sometimes they fit the voice of the main character, but should still be used sparingly. A little bit goes a long way.

There are also words that do double duty by describing something that’s already descriptive. Such as: tall skyscraper, whispered quietly, frozen ice, descended down, scribbled messily, etc. In each of these cases, only one word is required. The real difficulty is finding the exact words that work for your scene. In most cases, it’s finding the verb that conveys the action you’re looking for, *plus* the emotion associated with the scene.

Some of you may have noticed that, in the examples above, the first sentence is telling and the second is showing. If you did, good for you! :) It’s what exceptional writing comes down to, actually: words that show you the scene and evoke emotion in the reader. The best way to do this is to use fewer words so that the ones you do use work really hard to convey your meaning. It’s rare that you find these words the first time around, so don’t despair! Instead, embrace another mantra: try, try again. And you’ll get there in the end. :)

7 comments:

Sarah Negovetich said...

Great post. Telling is one the biggest reasons I reject a manuscript. It's crucial to get pulled into a story and telling stops the reader from doing that.

Tabitha Olson said...

Thanks! I have a hard time getting around telling, too. It's what makes me want to put the book down as a reader.

Johnell DeWitt said...

This is one of my biggest faults. I get too wordy and have to go back really pare it down. Good tips.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post, Tabitha! I correct things like this all the time for my editing clients.

marciastrykowski.com said...

I agree--less is more--well done!

Chrys Fey said...

Excellent post! I am always eliminating unnecessary words (really, just, very, etc.) when I am editing for others. I used to have a problem with using those words too, but now I can catch myself before I write them. :)

An Indian Writer said...

Well said.