Friday, May 6, 2011

Less is More

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  That was what the great Ernest Hemingway wrote when challenged to write the shortest story he could.  That story says so very much in just six short words.  You can feel the crippling sadness behind the words.  You can sense the heartbreak.  The loss is palpable even though there's nothing actually written about loss.

You know what happened.  Hemingway told you the basics and your mind instantly filled in the rest.  Whether with tragedy or just a case of giving up hope, you know the baby that was expected or hoped for isn't going to be there.  He threw a few words at us and made us write the story in our own minds.  I could only hope to do that.

Oftentimes writers go out of their way to tell the reader too much of the story.  I'm as guilty as anyone.  Readers are smart.  They can see where we're going with something, sometimes before we writers can.  Problem is, we think they can't see it, and so we try to spell it out for them.  We try to get them to see it exactly the way we do, because that's the perfect way.  At least in our minds it is.

And that leads to over-writing.  We put so much into a scene that we fill it up, jam-packed to the brim with excessive wordage.  We want it perfect, and so we smother it to death with attention instead of allowing our readers to provide their own picture the way they will.

A good friend of mine recently shared some advice on sales that I think is appropriate to writing as well.  "Show 'em as little as possible," he said.  "A person wants to believe the best, and so if they're missing information, their mind will fill the void with the best possible scenario."  That's great advice, and it came to him from a vagrant hitchhiker, of all places.  Give 'em a tiny taste and let their minds create the rest.

I try valiantly to use that advice in my writing.  I usually fail miserably, but I'm sure it helps take out some of the unnecessary verbosity I've been known to display.  I try even harder to adhere to that with my queries.  It's difficult.  The shorter the written work is, the harder it is to write, and the more important each and every word becomes.

So whether from one of the greatest writers of our time, or a random hitchhiker, the advice is sound.  Write more by writing less.


  1. True, true. Though I think "as little as possible" is always tough to navigate. There's a richness of experience you won't get if you pare things down too far.

  2. Spoken like a true writer! But yea, I agree, and I think that finding that thin line and being able to tread it as an author separates the great from the pedestrian.