Making Word(s) Count #1: Less is More … Sometimes.

When less is more

woman at computerOver the years, as I’ve participated in writer’s workshops and mentored writers’ groups, I’ve encountered a number of literary habits that can keep a story from having the impact a writer so deeply desires it to have.

Why didn’t the reader get my clever punch line, or thrill when I revealed the full scale of the horror faced by my protagonist?

Sometimes the answer is simple: too many words.

I often am paid by the word. Literally. Magazines such as Analog and Interzone pay a per word rate and my contracts for ghostwriting and editing have word count milestones. It would be easy to pad my account—to write using more words than I really needed. A few extra syllables in every sentence can add up.

But that’s not something I would do for several reasons—the top two being that it’s dishonest and potentially harmful to the story.

How? A surfeit of words gives the reader more to digest before she can grasp the meaning of a sentence. The most forceful sentences are ones that get the reader from the subject to the verb in the shortest amount of time.



So if a glowing alien (or a Gluhenvolk, to us Grimm fans), jumps out from behind a recumbent cow and yells “Boo!”, there are a number of different ways to convey your hero’s reaction.

Nick jumped is more powerful and “of the moment” than

In a sudden panic so intense it made his heart leap to his throat, Nick jumped.

The second construct delays the hero’s reaction to the Gluhenvolk/alien who, in the reader’s mind, is frozen in the act of booing, as he waits for that reaction (possibly checking his watch by the glow of his shiny wrist). There’s only one way to undermine the Moment of the scene even more and that would be this:

Nick jumped.Nick, in a sudden panic so intense it made his heart leap to his throat, jumped.

Now you’ve probably got the reader holding his breath, as well.

Yes, you want your reader to be dizzy—but with delight or fear or suspense, not lack of oxygen.

Another form excess verbiage can take is a sort of prose eddy. For example:

Given the water that was pouring over the berm, the character of the baseball diamond’s infield had turned into that of a swamp.

I’d advise looking twice (or thrice) at any sentence that had “into that of a” in it. Think of the sentence as a garden hose. If there are kinks in the hose, the clear, pure stream of your prose is never going to reach the thirsty plant. Unkink the hose:

Water poured over the berm, turning the infield into a swamp.

When more is more


Here’s an example. George calls his younger sister, Carla, after an absence. During their conversation, Carla says:

It’s three years since mom died and you joined that cult.

Writer, George knows this. This restating of basic fact is obvious exposition. Moreover, people don’t usually talk like this. The writer could have gotten more out of this dialogue by giving the speaker a deeper agenda—generating guilt, say—and (oh, by the way) giving that same information to the reader.

What if Carla says:

Well, George, this is a surprise. I haven’t seen you since mom’s funeral. That’s what—three years without a peep? You still in that damned cult?

This extended version has a lot of subtext. It tells the reader that Carla feels her older brother abandoned the family, and at a very bad time. The dig at the cult is natural. The paragraph now does more than convey facts both characters know, it illuminates their relationship and gets to the core of the tension between them in a more natural way.

Next time: Playing the Trump Card



Making Word(s) Count #1: Less is More … Sometimes. — 4 Comments

  1. I ran into a great example of this once in a student ms. The tyrannosaur is attacking! The time travelers run for their lives! But suddenly the author tells us that the dinosaur is 18 ft 5 inches tall. Really? The explorers whipped out a tape measure?

  2. Watch out for auxiliary verbs, too. Warnings against the passive voice are too particular. Auxiliary verbs add subtle shades of meaning, and usually you need more power and less subtly.

    • The real trick, I think (and may blog on this later), is knowing the effect you want a sentence or paragraph to have. Do you want your reader’s heart to pound? Short, fleet sentences with subject-verb combos that are direct and strong. keep multi-clasue sentences to a minimum.

      Want to give a sense of pause, or relaxation, or meandering (the heroine is having wandering, lazy thoughts as she floats along on a river barge), use longer, more lovely, more descriptive sentences that take on the character of the river. I even go so far as to setup internal rhythms in sentences to mimic the bobbing of trees in the wind or the rocking of a boat on a tide.

      I am, it must be said, a child of Ray Bradbury (he said so!) and WP Kinsella, who used words as if they were musical notes. One of my favorite quotes about writing is this from Somerset Maugham:” Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.”