This was the question from a workshop participant recently (let’s call him Scott). I had spoken about the need to trim and tighten text to avoid ‘overwriting’ – unnecessary repetition, overstatement, too many adverbs and adjectives, too much detail, too much exposition, too much backstory.
I had quoted other writers and editors who counsel the same thing. Carmel Bird in Dear Writer says, ‘Strangely enough, the strength of fiction seems to lie as much in what is left out as in what is included; as much in the spaces between the words as in the words.’ The American writer Brian Kiteley suggests that writers should train themselves to leave out as much as they put into a story. The writer and editor William Zinsser’s theory is that ‘writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.’ Stephen King talks of the 10% rule — you should be able to cut your text by 10% after the first draft without losing anything necessary.
But it was a fair question, and alerted me to the possibility of an emerging writer misinterpreting the ‘less is more’ message. Trimming and tightening text does not necessarily result in clipped sentences with barely an image in sight, it is however an important principle to ensure that every word on the page is there for a good reason and works to support the story development (fiction or non-fiction). There is plenty of room in the publishing world for a variety of writing styles. It’s all about finding your rhythm, and the rhythm that suits the story you are telling.
I was reminded of Scott’s question after I recently read two very different novels back to back: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997) and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012). American Pastoral is Roth’s eighth novel, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was included in Time’s 100 Greatest Novels. Harold Fry, on the other hand, is Joyce’s first novel, although she is an award-winning radio playwright. The novel was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and Joyce won the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year.
Roth creates a particular rhythm in his prose by often using very long sentences with clauses that cascade over each other building a carefully constructed scene or description or idea. Roth’s writing reminds me of jazz, where a soloist may produce a long run of seemingly rambling and unpredictable notes that are carefully shaped and punctuated to portray a feeling, a mood, a thought. When you get used to Roth’s style, you ride the solos with him and allow yourself to be taken into his way of seeing things. It’s not always comfortable, but always rewarding. As the quote on the cover says, “…raging and elegiac.”
In contrast, Joyce’s writing is more like folk music, where the harmonic structure is usually predictable, the melodic range is limited, and the overall effect is satisfying but rarely challenging. As the quote on the cover says, “touching and charming.” I in no way mean that this style of music or writing is less worthy or effective or skillful than Roth’s jazz style (or any other genre), it is simply different: it appeals to a different audience and produces different types of works that are appropriate to the stories being told (in words or music). A multiplicity of styles is no less important in writing as it is in music.
Both Roth and Joyce are successful writers (although at different stages of their careers) and you can be sure that both laboured long and hard at trimming and tightening their texts. They found the rhythms that were appropriate to their own ways of seeing and forms of storytelling. There are no rules in writing about sentence length or numbers of adjectives and adverbs. It’s not about rules. As Robert McKee says in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works… and has through all remembered time.’”
So think of trimming and tightening text as a principle, find your own rhythm and make it work for you and your story – therein lies the challenge.