The Value of Fewer Words

“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

-Samuel Beckett

After a month in which I wrote almost nothing, I thought it would be appropriate to focus this blog post on the value of writing less.

By that, I don’t mean writing breaks. I mean giving your words, your characters, and your concepts sufficient space to breathe.

As writers, we know what we need to accomplish in each scene of our book, from planting breadcrumbs for later plot developments to progressing the plot through action or dialogue. Unfortunately, we can be so focused on checking those boxes that our scene loses all semblance of flow. One of the oft-given pieces of writing advice is that you should always read your material aloud. If you, the author, find yourself stumbling over a particular sentence or paragraph, it’s a pretty good indicator that something is wrong.1

Occasionally, that’s purely a problem with structure; long chapters, overpacked sentences, and the like. Other times, the issue is that you’re trying to do too much.

the value of fewer words

Characters, dialogue, and plot all need space to develop. Readers similarly need that space to process what they’re reading. Without sufficient space, it all blends together and you just end up with noise. When that happens, your readers will either get frustrated at having ten thousand different concepts thrown at them in the span of a few pages, or–and this is both worse and far more common, in my opinion–they’ll start filtering a lot of your content out, hunting for what they think are the important details. I call this the Princess Bride effect2 Before you know it, they’ve skimmed right past that tattoo you carefully called out (knowing you wanted to set up a revelation a dozen chapters later)… and when that revelation does unspool in all its majesty, it lands with zero impact.

Which kind of sucks, given that you went through all that effort in the first place, right?

As writers, we need to create sufficient space for our story to breathe. Maybe that’s as simple as a break in the dialogue for some sort of action or reaction. Maybe it means fewer sentences, or shorter ones, or not having a sixty-eight page chapter3. Or maybe it calls for a review of what you wanted to accomplish in the scene. Maybe that tattoo needs to be referenced in a later scene instead… or maybe you need to add an entirely new scene, and split your workload between those two scenes. Hell, maybe you need to reconsider whether that revelation is really necessary at all.

The point is, we all agonize over word choice for a reason. Don’t craft the perfect passage and then make the mistake of not giving the reader enough time and space to digest it.

Sometimes it’s better to just sit back and let the words you’ve already written speak for themselves.

 

 

 

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Footnotes

  1. It’s also a good way to identify dialogue that doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever actually say.
  2. It’s more explicitly called out in the book than in the movie.. but even in the movie, you’ll recall the grandfather skips over all of the boring stuff as he narrates the story.
  3. It definitely means not having a sixty-eight page chapter.

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