Less is More

When I was writing my first novel for middle grade readers, The Crooked Gate, I zoomed through the first draft like the “man on the flying trapeze.” You know, the one who swung from place to place “with the greatest of ease.” At least, that’s the way I felt. I couldn’t get those flowery sentences on the paper fast enough. When I described the strange old house that Cass was destined to live in with her equally strange aunt, I went into enough detail to choke a horse. I repeated myself endlessly, wanting to make sure my young readers would get the picture.

Fortunately, I had an editor who liked my plot line and thought my characters were believable. “I want to publish this book,” she said, “if you are willing to make some changes.”

“Changes?” I looked at her suspiciously. “What kind of changes?”

She cleared her throat in the same way my fifth grade teacher had cleared hers when she was about to assign homework. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “You need to rewrite the whole thing! You need to cut at least half the description, turn all that narrative into dialogue, shorten your sentences, and start showing instead of telling.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea what she was talking about. Well, OK, maybe I had an inkling. But I didn’t know how I could do those things without ruining my book.

Fortunately, she said the right words. “Less is more,” she told me. “It’s always more. Give your readers some credit. They may be young, but they’re not dim. You don’t have to explain everything to them twice to make sure they get it!” She gave me the courage to cut out whole lines, to pare down sentences so they sparkled, to let characters speak. Not in paragraphs, but in short sentences that moved the story forward and added that extra dimension of voice.

The results were obvious. Two complete drafts later, the book was ready for publication. I had cut and trimmed and polished until a few words said a lot. The Crooked Gate won the Chariot Book Award that year and was soon followed by To Catch a Golden Ring and The Music Plays Past Midnight.

 Less is more. The words are not framed and hanging from a wall if my office, but they are indelibly printed in my mind. To me, the motto means: Say what you mean, and say it well, but don’t wear your readers out with unnecessary details. Show your characters in action, but don’t let the plot lag. Establish the setting, but emphasize only those bits of information that will be essential to your story.

 Submitted by Marilyn Donahue


4 responses to “Less is More

  1. What simple yet fantastic advice, Marilyn! Thanks for sharing. -Nancy

  2. This is so great, Marilyn, and PERFECT advice. I wish the author of the book I’m reading for my book discussion group had known your editor!! Although he’s apparently a best-selling author, he does ALL the things this editor said NOT to do. Thanks for reminding us that, indeed, “less is more.” Marge

  3. gloriastockstill

    Great advice, Marilyn!


  4. Shirley Shibley

    ooh, Marilyn, God really blessed you by sending your work to such a helpful editor! How thankful we all are that she recognized the gift of writing that God had given you. What a great inspiration for other writers–then to win an award! Well deserved, too.


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