Less is More: Our Writing Is Frittered Away By Detail


This is an actual manuscript written in Dickens’s own hand, but nobody writes like this anymore. (photo credit: ablogabouthistory.com)

Writing is an ever changing chameleon.  If we examine texts written throughout the ages we soon begin to notice a pattern of writing styles that change over time.  Everyone remembers Shakespeare, his eloquent speeches, powerful dialogue and dramatic scenes forever burned into our memory.  If one picks up a copy of a best selling novel in our present age and thumbs through the pages, one soon will find that the days of heavy description are over.

Why is this?

There may be at least two reasons for this.  The first being that we live in a digital age full of video and YouTube where if one desires to see something or visit a place, all one has to do is look it up on the internet and go there.  I personally visited the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an China, but one can hop on YouTube and see them virtually:

Another reason that is often argued is that the educational level of our average citizens who read books is much lower than it was in, say, Charles Dickens’s era.  This would account for the lower level of vocabulary (most books are written on a 6th grade reading level while the Twilight saga is written on a 4th grade level).  Dickens wrote in such a way that he would describe every inch of a room down to the small coal burning stove.  In our age, there is not a need for such heavy description.

My first novel, The Transgression Box, was guilty of this “writer’s sin” a few times.  I was writing a novel that was a science fiction story set in a universe of my creation, not tied to Earth or anything halfway familiar to the average reader.  What I had to realize was that the person who would normally read my book (the science fiction reader) was probably a science fiction fan and had probably seen a ton of science fiction movies and was very familiar with the genre and especially the modes by which my novel was created.  I eventually went through and trimmed down the description, reducing it to a bare minimum, and it made for a better read for those who read it.

My latest novel, unlike The Transgression Box, is an experiment in minimalism.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and it has been a challenge to not show the reader too much in each scene.  After all, first person point of view helps a writer to illustrate the idea that people are not as observant as a third person omniscient narrator.  When I end a scene in darkness and a gun goes off so that all the character sees is the muzzle flash and they call out for their friend who doesn’t answer, I want the reader to feel the anxiety of wondering if their favorite character just died.

Amateur writers need to face the fact that people do not write like Dickens anymore.  If you are one of these writers who feels that you are doing the world a service, trying to educate them with higher end prose that describes every detail of the setting and action, please stop that now because sadly no one wants to read that in this reader’s climate.

If this advice was taken to heart by writers of the past, however, we would probably not have great writers like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.  I completely understand this.  However, those writers were not that understood or successful in their own time.  It is only after they are long dead that we truly appreciate them.  We could all gather around old Melville’s grave and give him a three cheers, but he will never be able to hear our praise of him.  Emily Dickinson resigned herself to a mediocre life as she wrote in a letter to Thomas W. Higginson.

Literary Agencies all say that less is more, however, so start whittling away at the ungainly prose of your novel and find a happy medium that you can live with, then cut some more.  If you desire some advice about what to cut, I offer editing services for that.  I would be happy to help anyone out in this regard.  There are several ways to edit down a text to tell more of the story with less prose.  I will not post examples of this being written due to space, so contact me if you have problems in this area.

What are some things you do to cut down the heavy description?  Post those ideas here.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

3 thoughts on “Less is More: Our Writing Is Frittered Away By Detail

  1. Roger, while I know you’re giving great advice that would ultimately make more book sales, I mourn the lack of great description in novels today! I usually prefer the book to the movie simply because I want to be the one to daydream about the setting and characters, based on the book’s descriptions …. I tend to agree with Catana’s comment; I feel cheated with barebones novels that don’t give any ‘meat’ for the imagination. In my novel, I’m trying to arrive at a compromise – and while I love Dickens and all the classics that I believe are much better written (in every way) than today’s novels, I am somehow going to find that balance between description and over-description! Great food for thought here! 🙂

  2. It’s true that the literacy level has gone down, making it possible for low-level writing to become not only popular, but necessary for a lot of people. But writing isn’t about need, as in “there is not a need for such heavy description” or that we can just watch TV or movies or see what we want. You can cater to the semi-literate, but you don’t have to. Dickens’ *style* is what’s outdated, not his descriptions. A good many SF novels are filled with description, and they’ve made their authors very successful. It’s certainly possible to go overboard on description, particularly if it doesn’t really contribute anything to the story, but when I read barebones novels such as you describe, I feel as if I’ve been cheated. You’re lumping novels that depend more on action with those that develop a story more slowly and carefully. Novels aren’t movies and there’s no reason why they should try to have the same effect, or even reach the same audiences.

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