Less is more. This maxim applies in almost every circumstance.
Let’s examine. One of my favorite things to do is get rid of stuff. All stuff. Any stuff. Old clothes–or even new clothes that I no longer wear. Papers that demonstrated my ability to spell in second grade. Furniture we have no room for. It frees our tiny space of clutter and makes me feel lighter. Plus, then I have room for MORE books, which is really all I hope to have in my possession when I die. And it gives me MORE time. For example, if I have only three pair of pants to wear, making the choice of outfit for the day is vastly streamlined, giving me MORE time.When I keep my refrigerator as empty as possible while still having food to eat, I can more easily see what we have on hand and what we don’t. Less food goes to waste because nothing is hiding there in the way far back corner, and therefore I have MORE money for groceries.
Okay, I think that’s plenty of examples. So now let’s apply this maxim to writing. As you know, I work as a freelance writer and editor in addition to writing fiction of my own. One of the things I am constantly telling all my clients is that they are too wordy. And if they only cut out 5,000 words they could then have MORE space to bring to the forefront the more important scenes they need to show,
Let’s look at a few ways authors tend to be too wordy.
First is adjectives and adverbs. Now, these are fine words for vocabulary on the SAT and stuff, but not so useful for an author. They make us wordy. I know–you love them. How can you cut them? Slash them quickly and painlessly. A common thing authors do is string a whole bunch of adjectives together:
Molly approached the huge, scary, dark, Victorian house.
Not only is that a lot of adjectives, but they are all pretty vague. What exactly is huge? Bigger than an aircraft carrier? Or just bigger than my car? What is scary? It could be a perfectly manicured Pleasantville-type house. Or something that is covered in ivy and where nobody is ever seen. Or maybe it’s not so much the house itself that is scary, but the people who live there. So what if the author rewrites that sentence with fewer, but stronger, words? Something like:
Oily tar paper jutted from beneath a few jagged shingles.
Okay, it’s not really fewer words, but the words are much more evocative, don’t you think? So they are put to better use.
Nonfiction authors sometimes try to be so erudite that you can’t even understand them.
Here are a few examples from a nonfiction project I’m currently editing:
The Jack Russell terrier named Stubby, in a video recorded scene in John’s hot tub, became a television star, acclaimed eventually as winner of American television’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos” quarterly and then annual competitions.
How about this instead:
John recorded his dog Stubby in the hot tub, and they won “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Says pretty much the same thing, leaving out a few insignificant details.Which is the point. One way to use fewer words is to know what you really need to say. Most authors of both fiction and nonfiction write way more than the reader needs to know.
The next sentence in that same piece was originally:
Accompanying those distinctions were prize checks for a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, a windfall John didn’t care to have taxes diminish.
My rewrite is: They won $125,000, but John didn’t want to pay taxes on that much.
Long sentences with big words are usually not all that interesting. Using active verbs and strong words simplifies your writing as well as making it more readable.
A couple of other ways we are too wordy include saying the same thing multiple ways, just to make sure we are clear. Terri Farley, a Nevada author who is also a fantastic teacher, calls this the “Get It Factor.” As in, imagine the reader saying “I get it, already.”
For example, if I write:
Angela fought back the tears. “I hate you.” She was so sad. She hated him.
Get it? Why not just leave it with the first two sentences? They convey the sentiment well enough with the additional two sentences, which essentially just repeat the same thing.
Authors are notorious for including too much back story. This is especially so for beginning authors. They want to tell us everything about a character that led up to the point at which we find them in the story. Most of that is great for the author to know, but the reader doesn’t care. That’s why we revise. Most of the time, I can tell an author to chop off the first three chapters or so and start there.
Less IS more. When you are less wordy, your writing becomes MORE active, MORE clear, and MORE fun to read.
Now, here’s your challenge: find some places in your writing where you are too wordy and post them in the comments. Then we will all see how we can shorten those excerpts to make it MORE.