Okay, I realize that this is one you’ve heard before. And in fact, I’ve already provided a more macro example of how this maxim can apply to a manuscript by sharing an earlier version of the prologue to The Herald’s Dark Progress, and explaining why, and how, it needed to change.
Here, however, I want to discuss “less is more” in the context of page-to-page writing, which is a very different thing.
As I told you in an earlier post on my writing process, for me the standard “plow forward and come back” or “ramble and revise” or “spew/cull” methodology that most writers seem to employ (for the record, I don’t think any of them actually call it the latter) is generally the exception, and not the rule. In fact, for me, the concept of “less is more” usually means not that I’ve included a bunch of extraneous text that I will subsequently need to cut, but that I have tried to pack too many ideas/images into too little space, and I will subsequently need to separate them. Ironically, the way I almost always fix this version of the “less is more” problem, is not to subtract from my manuscript, but to add to it. Or, as I described it in my post on the subject, I tend to “comb out” the text rather than to “chip away” at it.
(Good gravy, that’s a lot of quotation marks. Perhaps this post could do with fewer of those…)
But sometimes combing out doesn’t work. Sometimes you are trying to express too much – not for the space, but for the idea. You’ve included too much detail in your description, or your narrative color has crossed the line into narrative digression, or your prose has simply become overly rambling and unfocused in its structure. I’m sure you can see how any of these missteps can cause problems: your readers can lose interest, they can become confused, or worst of all, they can be so jarred from the narrative that they step away from the book completely. In one way or another, what you’ve written isn’t drawing them in, it’s pushing them out. And when that happens, the solution isn’t to spread out, it’s to pare back.
As per my usual practice, I’ve provided a link to a concrete example from my own work in order to demonstrate my point. Originally, I was hoping that this piece would be an illustration of the subtler “less is more” editing that I believe is probably more representative of the way other authors work the majority of the time: a paragraph that started out bloated, and then grew more streamlined in subsequent drafts. Unfortunately, however, because my predominant mode of editing is actually the opposite of chipping away, I couldn’t find any examples that didn’t also include some combing out. (As I write this, it occurs to me that it might have helped if I had anticipated the fact that I would need such an example before I finished the most recent draft of the manuscript – also, that the phrases “comb out” and “chip away” appear far too many times in the space of this post.) Consequently, I have instead provided you with a taste of the more dramatic version of this version of the writing process: an entire page of text that wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
You can find it here.
Now, as you can tell, the four paragraphs I’ve posted for your review are a bit of character description for a player in my drama by the name of Priest Calwin. And I actually think that they have the makings of a decent segment: the language is (in my opinion) rich, the cadence flows fairly well (despite being a relatively early pass), the detail provided gives the character real substance (though admittedly some of it should have been shown rather than told), and all of it fits in context with the action taking place around him (i.e. some commotion in Calwin’s class that he is about to address).
…Calwin is a secondary character;
…none of this detail is germane to the story;
…nor does it really help with world-building or mood-setting;
…and most importantly, it occurs right just as an important plot point is unfolding (the cause of said commotion he is about to address).
Consequently, much as I liked where it was headed as a discrete piece of prose, in the end I deemed it detrimental to the story as a whole. And so, out it went.
When I cut this section, I actually rewrote the entire passage, so in this case there’s no “after” to show you in conjunction with the “before” – or at least none that would be directly traceable. But I can tell you that by eliminating the description of Calwin (not to mention the accompanying shift in narration to his point of view that followed) I was able to describe the important plot point in an unbroken chain of events from the protagonist’s perspective, and in my mind the tradeoff is a much better (more dramatic, more gripping) piece of writing. Those of you who’ve read my book should be able to recognize exactly where this description would have occurred in the original manuscript (hint: check the beginning of the second section), and the difference ought to give you (I hope!) a powerful example of what a change like this can do to up the tension in a narrative. (And, conversely, how retaining this characterization at that point might have served to tamp it down).
As I mentioned when I first introduced this example, in addition to this full page deletion, I would have liked to have given you an illustration of a single over-written paragraph that only required a more subtle trimming back, because that would’ve shown how if you do employ the “plow forward and come back” approach, how you can go about your business when it comes to line-to-line writing (and in the future, I may add another, separate post just for that purpose). But no matter what process you employ on a line-to-line basis, when it comes to the page-to-page, occasionally you will take wrong turns like this one. And when that happens, the right choice will be to cut an entire section (sometimes an entire chapter!), one that took you hours (or even days!) to write. As you can see, I’ve done it. So, trust me: it will be painful to do (especially the first time), but the result will be a better book. And in the end, that’s what matters most.