Brevity in Your Writing: Adding by Taking Away

When reading a book, nothing annoys, frustrates and irritates me more than when an author over-writes their work to the extent that it annoys, frustrates and irritates me no end. There has been a tendency in the last decade or so for enormous forest-killing books to exceed 800 pages to grace the book shelves of our favourite book stores. The average book length is around double what it was in the 1970s and it seems publishers are favouring these doorstops over books with fewer words and less pages.

Notice what I did there? I disposed of all of the excess wordage in an edit purely for brevity in my writing.

For me, over-writing is not about a book’s length and therefore brevity in writing is not about keeping it short – it’s about keeping it succinct. I’ve read several paperbacks in excess of 1,000 pages. Stephen King’s IT and The Stand are two I recall off the top of my head. Another, obviously, is A Game of Thrones. Despite the length, it is not over-written. I do feel it does get perilously close in the beginning. The thing about GOT is that it seems everything happens to advance the plot. That is certainly true of the two King titles.

brevity in your writing helps you save time and space

Is There a Lack of Brevity in Your Writing?

I don’t know why this is the case, but I do get frustrated at books where too little happens for too long. Hundreds of pages pass before anything of note occurs. I wouldn’t mind so much if the books focused on scene-setting or world-building. Nothing is happening, but the writing is important to the story. Often, some books don’t even do that. Too little happens to characters we don’t care about and it seems an exercise in dragging out what little story there is for the sake of reaching a (publisher-specified) preordained length.

Have we really lost the need or the desire to keep our writing tight? Have we lost the meaning of or the need for brevity in writing? Have we lost the desire to tell a story at a pace that a reader would want? I could keep banging on about this forever and that would only prove my point further the more I repeated myself and you skip to the next paragraph. So I will make this point as quickly and as succinctly as I can.

Use fewer words to say more

Or as one of the rules of writing states it rather tongue in cheek:

Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

I’m about to finish my current WIP Salmonweird and it’s going to be in the region of 65,000 words (I think). I have already identified areas where I feel the story needs expanding, but I’m going to only write that which I think is necessary to the two sub-plots I want to add or expand. Studying for a BA and MA helped me understand the one fundamental rule of writing:

Every Word Counts

I studied at a department that had strict word limits where you’d be penalised for going over by too much (I think a 5% threshold on a 2,000 word essay, meaning no more than 100 extra words).

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or how long it is. Readers do get bored and fed up if they feel bogged down in text. The majority of books I’ve given up reading in the last couple of years were not because they had bad stories or boring characters, but because they were over-written. Perhaps some of us writers spend too much time navel-gazing. Perhaps we are so concerned with the art of our craft that we forget the science of it.

Listen to George Orwell

George Orwell famously came up with five rules of writing. Two of them concern brevity:

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do. This is especially important in writing for the web. The Fleisch Reading Test is a contributing factor to SEO rankings. In fiction writing, there is a danger that the reader will find you pretentious.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, then cut it out: Although I have touched on this a bit in this post, you could refer back to the opening paragraph to see my overall point about why you should never over-write.

That’s not to say that you should always keep it short and punchy. Sometimes, writing can come across as uninspired, dull even. The key is finding that right balance between what you are trying to convey and what your reader wants.

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2 thoughts on “Brevity in Your Writing: Adding by Taking Away

  1. I think authors need to remember that their readers are not stupid; they don’t need the entirety of a character’s emotions, for example, to be spoon-fed to them – they will (enter italics here) figure it out. (Nor does a point need to be made multiple times – say it once, and readers will remember.)

    In the case of over-writing description, authors need to ask themselves if all this detail is important? Can it be synthesized into fewer words? (Make a four-line paragraph into a two-line description?) Can it be stripped and disbursed, mixed within the narrative or even the dialogue? (I think it’s also important to note that the author can count on the reader to use their imagination for filling in gaps – a flexibility readers often enjoy.)

    As for redundancy, I think this can be cleared after the author has taken some time away from their piece. They can read it from top to bottom and find the errors, but a clear head makes a better eye, in my opinion.

    Good post and topic. 🙂

    1. Thank you for commenting and I am glad you found this useful. Essentially, we should “show don’t tell” but partly also we need to trust the reader’s imagination to do its part too

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