Less Is More—an Element of Good Writing

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Beginning writers, and sadly some experienced ones, often make the mistake of thinking that good writing requires colorful language, big words, and fancy sounding phrases. The truth is that good writing requires conciseness, a lack of frills, and a focus on communication in a manner that is pleasant yet straightforward for the reader.

Bad writing is often bad because the writer tries too hard to make it good. Everyone today thinks he can write a book, and consequently, when a person tries to write a book, he thinks he must put on his gear to do so—gear that includes three syllable words, elaborate vocabulary, a lot of emphasis to get his point across, and playful attempts at humor that fall flat on their face. This type of gear is equivalent to thinking you can win a race by running superfast at the beginning—unfortunately, you will quickly run out of steam while the other runners who paced themselves will soon overcome you. Similarly, writers who overwrite often lose their readers before the end, or at least send their readers into agonies of groaning, along with the occasional laugh in the wrong place.

Despite everything your high school English teacher may have taught you, or you misunderstood in her class, using big words and fancy phrases does not make for effective communication. Your overall goal is not to impress readers with how smart or poetic you are, but to communicate well with them.

Following are some common elements of bad writing for you to avoid:

Big Vocabulary: Writing is often bad because people try too hard to be elaborate and they overdo it. Always strive to use simple words and to choose the word that will mean the most to your readers. If you use a word you found in the dictionary or thesaurus but did not know the meaning of before, then you probably shouldn’t use it. Remember to ask yourself whether your reader will know the word—he may or may not, depending on who he—your audience—is. It’s best to assume your readers are as intelligent and knowledgeable as you, not more or less. To use fancy words that your audience may not know is to alienate them from what you are trying to say, thereby failing to communicate and get your message across.

Big Words vs. Small Words: The use of “big” words is similar to using vocabulary words you may not know. Your readers might even know the big words, but that doesn’t mean those words are the best choice. If a small word—one syllable as opposed to three or four—means the same thing as the larger word, there’s no reason not to use it. My pet peeve big word is “utilize.” I see it used constantly, but I will not “utilize” it. Why? Because I can use “use” instead.

Too often, well-meaning English teachers encourage students to improve their vocabularies. One does not improve his vocabulary, however, by pulling words he never used out of the thesaurus or dictionary. The best way to improve vocabulary is simply to read a lot; look up any words you don’t know for their meanings; in time, as you come across certain words in your reading, they will become so familiar to you that you will find yourself using them without giving them thought. That is when you know what they truly mean and when you can use them effectively.

Too Much Description: The biggest mistake authors make when it comes to description is to use words that mean little or nothing, such as: very, really, and extremely.

To say, “We had a very nice time” does not communicate anything more than “We had a nice time.” Such words are useless and do not add to description. Notice all three words I listed are adverbs. Avoid using adverbs whenever possible. As Stephen King has said, “Adverbs are not your friend.”

Today, readers are impatient with a lot of description. Rather than describe every object in a room, find one or two words that will be sufficient for the reader. Instead of describing doilies, end tables, wall paper, curtains, Boston ferns, and everything else that might be in the room, you could say, “The room was decorated in the most expensive Victorian style, complete with all the furnishings one would expect from doilies to mahogany furniture and an overabundance of knick-knacks.” Readers will then get the idea without needing to know how many chairs, sofas, doilies, knick-knacks, etc. there are, or where they are all placed throughout the room. Limit your description to just a sentence or two, not pages as the Victorians would have preferred. Remember, your readers are not Victorians. They are twenty-first century, fast-paced people who have limited time.

A good way to remember not to describe too much is to take Elmore Leonard’s advice about writing, “Leave out the boring parts.”

Fancy Phrasing and Narration: The other day, I came across a quote from Charles Dickens: “We must now return, as the novelists say, and as we all wish they wouldn’t….”

Dickens is absolutely right in giving this bit of writing advice. If you sound like a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon with a narrator guiding the reader along, you’ve got a problem. If you need to “return” your reader to another scene or another character, then “Meanwhile,” is sufficient. Better yet, a blank line indicating a scene break will do.

Intrusive narrators say such things as “We must now return” and they also do things like address the reader with phrases like “Dear gentle reader,” as if taking the reader aside to share a confidence, which usually ends in the narrator preaching to the reader about something. Preaching is the opposite of the old “show, don’t tell.” If you’re preaching, you’re telling. If you’re telling the reader to pity a character or to admire his good qualities, you’re preaching. If the reader can’t figure out how to feel about the characters without you telling him, then you need to work on your character development.

Overemphasis: A sure sign of a self-published book is the use of overemphasis. By overemphasis, I mean a string of capitalized, italicized, or bold words, or words in quotation marks. For example:

“The castle was so BEAUTIFUL that we were AWED throughout our visit to its grand estate.”

If I open up a book and see a sentence like that, you can guarantee I’ll close the book right away. At the very least, get rid of the capitals and italics, but better yet, rewrite the sentence so the actual words convey why the castle was beautiful:

“The castle’s antique stones and the colorful vines growing up its sides made it beautiful, and its age and baroque grandeur left us in awe.”

Trying to Be Funny: Too many beginning authors try to be funny, but they do so by making jokes we’ve all heard before or trying to elaborate on something only mildly funny by exaggerating it. Humor is extremely difficult to write and everyone’s sense of humor is a bit different. Some people will find Shakespeare or Dickens funny, while others will prefer Adam Sandler or Steve Martin, and others will find all of these people funny. Be sure to think about your intended audience and try not to alienate anyone with your humor. For the beginning humor writer, avoiding religion, gender, race, and politics might be the best way to go so you don’t offend someone. And please, don’t recycle jokes. Authors who try to be funny often use jokes they’ve heard elsewhere; trust me, your reader has heard those jokes too, and by the time your book gets published, the jokes will be old and stale and leave your reader rolling his eyes.

Short and Concise: I could go on, listing many more things not to do, but I want to be short and concise before I alienate my reader. In summary, strive for good communication. If you’re unsure about a phrase or word you want to use, ask yourself, “How well will this word or sentence communicate with my reader?” Good writing is all about communication, not trying to be a modern Shakespeare. Communicate well and you will write well.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on June 3, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It is extremely felicitous that you utilized your words to communicate in such a munificent way! 🙂

  2. Catherine Treadgold

    Thank you, thank you! I have half a mind to send this article in response to 80% of the submissions we receive. I do accept books with many of these faults in special cases where the author knows how to tell a story and create memorable characters, but the editing process is often painful. Many genre writers prefer to keep churning out books rather than perfecting their craft. I can't tell you the number of times I've stared at a paragraph trying to figure out what the author is trying to say before finally realizing what word he intended to use. And like you, I loathe the word "utilize."

  3. Here's a belated thank you for this, Irene. I agree with your "too much description" point, but I don't go along with Stephen King's rule that “adverbs are not your friend.” They should be used as seldom as possible, but they can be useful. Two examples: "too" is an adverb. If you hadn't used it, you'd seem to be advocating more description, not less. I also could've written in place of "as seldom as possible" the single adverb "sparingly." After all, less is more.

  4. Great advice, as usual. If only I could borrow your brain. Is it for rent? Thank you!

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