Friday, April 17, 2009

Less Is More

"As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence." - Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, inventor of bifocals, the lightning rod and water skis, had a talent for saying something profound with very few words. And when you write a mystery novel, the language needs to be spare so the plot can move quickly, so most writers I know spend long hours trying to say more with less.

I've been thinking a lot about idle words lately, words which seem essential the first time you write a chapter, but then in the cold light of morning, when you're editing what you wrote the night before, look like barnacles on a ship. Even the most economical writers will say they can always go back through a manuscript and cut, cut, cut. Where do these extra words come from?

It's almost as if our subconscious has followed the national trend towards obesity, and it requires a conscious effort to trim the fat from our first draft. That's assuming our stories and imaginings stem from our subconscious in the first place. Maybe our superego has been supersized by living in a fast food culture. Or perhaps our id and not the subconscious needs whipping into shape. If Freud were still alive (and hadn't been so verbose), I'd ask him.

The next time your editor suggests you trim the length of your manuscript, just explain that you have a fat id and ask for more time. It will probably trigger more confusion than sympathy, but it may buy enough time to make those cuts you probably should have made in the first place.


Jess Lourey said...

Wasn't Benjamin Franklin also a perv in real life?

Yes, trim the fat. That's why I can't look at my books after they've been published--I see all the words I should have taken out. I need to have more faith in my readers and overwrite less.

Julia Buckley said...

I have to trim, too--but there's something satisfying in doing the trimming. Maybe it's just better that way: better to pare down the words than have to add a bunch to what you think is just fine.

Anonymous said...

Adding words is way harder, have to agree.

Alan Orloff said...


Sometimes in the cold light of morning, I want to get rid of all my words.

And Jess, since you think Ben Franklin was a, um, perv, does that mean you'll be getting rid of all your $100 bills? I know a good home for them.

Keith Raffel said...

I enjoyed your post, Mr. Maleeny.

When I was 14, I was on the school wrestling team. My weight class was 115 and I was five foot ten. The issue for me then was putting more meat on my bones.

To a certain extent that still applies to my writing. From first to last draft of Smasher, the book I have coming out this fall, I added ten thousand words. That's probably because I write without an outline so my first draft at times is just that -- an outline. That first draft needs to get a little more meat on its bones, too.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I've notice a big difference in my series from book to book. As the series goes on, I've matured as a writer which translates into more complex plots and a keener eye for removing the fat. But there's still a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes in the final edits, I actually groan when I see some of the junk I threw on the page.

jbstanley said...

Tim, I am definitely going to need that final excuse when I turn in my next book. I like the idea of her scratching her head and thinking writers are truly a bunch of lunatics!