Less Can Be More

Photograph by Dan Deschenes
Photograph by Dan Deschenes

I overwrite at times. I don’t mean long phrase-upon-phrase, clause-upon-clause, description-upon-description sentences as, say, Virginia Woolf does. If I were capable of writing sentences like this from Mrs. Dalloway—

The British middle classes sitting sideways on the tops of omnibuses with parcels and umbrellas, yes, even furs on a day like this, were, she thought, more ridiculous, more unlike anything there has ever been than one could conceive; and the Queen herself held up; the Queen herself unable to pass.

—then I would be happy to write like Woolf.

Unfortunately, my writing instead can be larded with unnecessary phrases, clauses, and descriptions. Even as I was completing the third round of revisions for my novel, As the Crow Flies, I still found things—even single words—to cut, or clunky sentences that needed rephrasing so they were sharp and clear.

Since I am aware of this literary weakness on my part, I tend to pounce when I find the same failing in a student’s or client’s writing. So I change, “She felt as if she couldn’t breathe,” to “She couldn’t breathe.” When I point out the change to the writer, she says, “Of course.” It can be easier to see problems in other people’s writing than in our own; and when excess verbiage is pointed out to us, we do say, “Of course.”

Yet as I am no Virginia Woolf, able to create long flowing sentences without wasted words or unwieldy structure, neither am I Raymond Chandler. I am unable—at least at this point in my writing career—to comfortably bang out three simple sentences in a row, as Chandler does in The Long Goodbye. “He offered me a drink. I said no thanks. I didn’t sit down.” But then Chandler could handle a complex sentence as well as Woolf, for the next paragraph contains this:

 Also, he hadn’t mentioned that he had no job and no prospects and that almost his last dollar had gone into paying the check at The Dancers for a bit of high class fluff that couldn’t stick around long enough to make sure he didn’t get tossed in the sneezer by some prowl car boys, or rolled by a tough hackie and dumped out in a vacant lot.

Of course the length of the sentences, the simplicity or complexity of them, is not the point. The necessity of each word is the point. So I continue my search and destroy missions when proofing my own work or editing a student’s or a client’s.

I will allow Strunk and White, in Elements of Style, have the last word:

17. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

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3 thoughts on “Less Can Be More”

  1. Amen to all that. Being taught precis writing in school gave earlier generations a leg up on this problem. The student was required to read say, four pages, and condense it into one. Then the one page into one paragraph. Finally. one summary sentence. Of course, the ensuing discussions on what the participants wrote could also be most thought provoking. Martha

    1. And I’m sure you would agree that one of the best writing exercises from Ursula Le Guin’s marvelous “Steering the Craft” is to take a piece of your writing, 400-1000 words, and cut it in half. Oh, the groans when I assign that one. But how wonderful the results.

  2. Nicely done blog post, Elizabeth. I like your “search and destroy” concept. While recently preparing some of my stories, already edited and published as eBooks, for the paperback versions, I went through them yet again and eliminated several pages from each book before approving them for print. And yes, the learning precis writing (thank you, nuns) helps a lot.

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MY WORDS FLY UP

In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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