Less is More: Paring Down Your Writing

May 13, 2016 by Eleanor Bertin


Someone once called my writing “sparse.” Communicating with some of the people in my life is probably to blame. I’ve learned two things about talking to them that has carried over into my writing: Keep a discussion to one topic and don’t drag in unnecessary details. My fear of seeing their eyes glaze over with boredom has affected my attitude toward my readers.

There’s another thing that keeps me succinct. It’s the fact that what I write over the course of months, okay, years, a reader will devour in mere hours. So while I have had to digress from my writing for the sake of research or simply the rest of life, the reader is immersed in the world I’ve created, alert to every nuance and hint. Readers aren’t stupid, we’re often reminded. We mustn’t annoy them with descriptive clutter.

Like Michaelangelo, when asked how he knew where to begin carving a piece of marble, writers need to pare away the excess until only the sculpture remains.

Early in my novel, Lifelines, there’s a scene where biologist Dr. Robert Fielding’s neighbor, Anna, is cutting his hair while asking about his beliefs. He quotes Bertrand Russell, saying, “…after all, no one can sit beside the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.”

Now, Anna is a kind and gentle woman, but Fielding’s ideas rile her. (It’s always a bad idea to rile the person holding the clippers.) Since the scene is written from Robert’s point of view, I was limited to showing only a few outward hints of her feelings.

Anna stopped the razor. “I wonder how many bedsides of dying children Mr. Russell ever sat beside. And if he did, what would he have said… ‘Too bad about your luck’?” She had put some distance between them and at the sharp tone in her voice Robert turned to look up at her… She stared out the window, her mouth gathered in a grim line. He sat awkwardly below her, uncomfortable.

Just four phrases tell us she’s disturbed; she stops the razor, puts distance between them, her sharp tone of voice and her grim mouth. Less is more.

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Using description sparingly doesn’t mean we can never go into detail. In a later scene, I purposely added detail to reinforce a point that is only hinted at a few times in the novel. Over coffee and cinnamon buns, Anna listens to a neighbor complaining about her rotten, ungrateful adult daughters. The scene is not written from Anna’s point of view but I wanted to hint at Anna’s own sorrows over straying children.

“The years of raising children go by so quickly, don’t they? Even though the days were long at the time. And then we have the quiet of these later years to evaluate our parenting.” Anna set down the remaining half of the cinnamon roll. As she did so, an errant raisin in the moist, dark centre fell away, sticking to the edge of her plate precariously. She stared at it, deep in thought.

The “errant raisin” falling away symbolizes one of Anna’s sons. But even if the reader doesn’t catch the significance of such an oblique image, the pause is long enough to show there’s more to this than meets the eye.

We can trust our readers to remember important details. If it’s been a few chapters, they might only need a subtle reminder. This is not to argue against the use of repetition. Repetition can be an effective way to make a point. (See what I did there?)

But writers should remember: Readers remember!

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About this Contributor

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In a fit of optimism at age eleven, Eleanor Bertin began her first novel by numbering a stack of 100 pages. Only two of them were ever filled with words. Lifelines, her first completed novel, was shortlisted in the 2015 Word Alive Press Free Publishing Contest.

Eleanor holds a college diploma in Communications and worked in agricultural journalism until the birth of her first child. The family eventually grew to include one daughter and six sons (the youngest with Down syndrome) whom she home-educated for twenty-five years.

Eleanor and her husband live amidst the ongoing renovation of a century home in central Alberta where she blogs about sometimes-elusive contentment at jewelofcontentment.wordpress.com.