MG Mason

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.

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:

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.