Romy's Blog

K.I.S.S. - Keep it simple, stupid

I take great pains with my work, pruning and revising with a tireless hand... I cut [the words] with infinite care, and burnish them until they become brilliants. What many another writer would be content to leave in massive proportions, I polish into a tiny gem.

- Ernest Hemingway

Before Hemingway arrived on the literary scene, blowing a breath of fresh air into narrative fiction, novels were often wordy and long-winded. If you've ever read Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Herman Melville's Moby Dick you'll appreciate just how flowery their language could get. (Dickens at least had a good excuse - he wrote for magazines and was paid by the word, so the more words he wrote, the more money he earned.) Hemingway was a journalist before he was a novelist, and he brought that same concise writing style to his novels, a style adopted by many twentieth century writers.

Nineteenth century readers were conditioned to reading verbose prose, but you won't get away with it in a 21st century novel. There are some genres (Regency Romances and epic fantasies in the style of Tolkien spring to mind) where a flowery writing style might still be tolerated, but on the whole modern readers don't have time or patience, so writing in a verbose style might still lose you more readers than it gains.

What do we mean by a verbose style? Verbosity simply means using more words than are necessary. To illustrate, I'll use the classic opening line from Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(58 words in a single sentence)

A much simpler way to phrase that might be:

On a dark, stormy night, rain fell in torrents, though now and then a violent gust of wind swept up the London streets. The wind rattled along the housetops and agitated the scant flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(42 words in two sentences)

Editing for brevity is a step that beginner writers often overlook - and it's usually beginner writers who are most likely to offend with long, wordy sentences. As they lack confidence to be themselves, they often try to emulate writers of the past. I highly recommend that every writer, before ever sending their manuscript to an editor, does a single pass of the entire manuscript looking for nothing else except where to tighten the writing. This doesn't mean you need to lose descriptive writing or strip your words down to the bare bones. (After all, that amended version of "dark and stormy night" above is no less descriptive). It just means deleting all the unnecessary extra words.

For example, on the face of it, a line like "He would give her a measure of time to think" doesn't look terribly wordy, but amplified over ten thousand sentences it can result in a slow-paced book that is less gripping for the reader. [In case it's not obvious, that sentence would be more simply written as "He would give her time to think."] Even in an historical novel, where the writer might be looking to emulate Jane Austen for a more period feel, the tighter sentence would improve the book's pacing and the reader's enjoyment of the story without feeling anachronistic.

As an editor, I am occasionally met by authors who resist my recommendations to simplify, and who insist their wordier style is a choice. I suspect that they believe emulating the voices of past luminaries will make them appear more literary and clever. However, it's interesting to note that a 2005 Princeton University actually proved the opposite: readers rated shorter and more concise texts as being written by more intelligent authors, and those with longer and more convoluted styles as being less intelligent!

Even Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, still considered the ultimate guide for English writing, encouraged authors to "omit needless words". If that applied in 1959, you can bet it applies twice as much today!

For practical tips on how to simplify your sentences and write tighter, I have a series of blog posts on how to reduce the fat in your writing to help you make your writing simpler and more engaging.

On a lighter note, we're playing the doorways game on my Facebook page again. This is a fun writing prompt to get the creative juices flowing.

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