Thursday, October 4, 2012

Less Is More by Clive West

It's an old adage, isn't it? It actually comes from Robert Browning's poem, Andrea del Sarto which was written in 1855.

Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

But this is poetry – how does it apply to prose writing?

Less is more, in the context to which I refer, describes the decision of what to leave in or leave out in the written depiction of an action, item or thought process.

You see, in the passion of the moment, it's easy for an author to get carried away with detail and I well recall reading a certain bestseller (which can remain nameless) that spent 3 pages describing a carving. Of course, if this was a book about carvings or if this were some mysterious artifact in a Dan Brown book then fair enough, give us all the details. As part of a crime story (which is what it was), it would have been more than sufficient to just to comment on the skill of the carver, the color of the wood and the shapes that had been depicted.

When you edit your work, ask yourself if you are guilty of being too self-indulgent. Have you allowed yourself to get involved in lengthy (and probably deadly boring) descriptions of things, conversations, etc which add nothing to the plot.

For example, let's say your story takes the main characters into a restaurant:

·         Do you really need a running commentary on every dish?

·         Do you need any of the dialogue at all?

·         Do the meal's details add to the story?

·         When it comes to the synopsis of your story that you upload to Amazon, Smashwords, your friendly publisher/agent, will you be including it?

If not, then you probably don't need it and it sounds like a candidate for dropping.

There's a fine line to be trod between making the story too bare and causing it to become bogged down with irrelevancies. Think again of the adage, "less is more". What does a watercolor painter do? Do they attempt to depict every detail in the same way as your 12 Megapixel digital camera might? No, they concentrate on getting the general hues and shapes correct and let your eyes deceive your brain into believing that there is much more detail in the painting than there actually is.

The net result is that a good watercolor will tell you all that you need for your brain to recreate a full picture - the mood, the shapes, the colors, what is going on etc.

On that same subject, it's also fair to say that most photographs benefit from cropping otherwise the picture's focal point can be easily lost amid extraneous and confusing background detail.

Your writing must strive to provide the imagery needed to allow the reader's brain to turn your story into an audio-visual experience. Save where you deliberately intend to confound the reader, that imagery must be clear and assimilable. As an author, it must be your primary objective.

However it's also possible to go to the other extreme and leave out key details. How often have you read a book which in almost 'deus ex machina' fashion skips from A to D without any mention of B and C? In honor of my commercial background, I call them the 'we got the contract' devices. I'd spend weeks or even months trying to negotiate a contract while 'our hero' simply just announces, "Hey, we got the ...". It doesn't have to be a contract, any situation where it's not a foregone conclusion that 'success is on the cards' is valid.

Of course, if it's merely an ancillary thing then let it be, but if it's an intrinsic part of the story then it should be covered. If you skip over this nicety, your writing will come across as trite and implausible.

Yes, less is more but notice that 'less' does not mean insufficient. Striking this balance separates a competent author from a great one.

Author Profile: Clive West

Clive West was born in the West Country of England in the early 60's. He was educated at a traditional English public school before going on to university to study civil engineering. Over the years, he has worked as a civil engineer, tutor of maths and science, schools quiz-master, employment agency boss, and writer.
His work includes a collection of short stories with twists called Hobson's Choice, a full-length novel called 'The Road' about the consequences of corruption on ordinary people and an accessible job hunting interview guide (based on his years of experience as the boss of an employment agency).
He has also written a book about lymphedema. This is a disfiguring, life-threatening and incurable disease he now suffers from and which his experience shows that most fellow patients have (like him) been abandoned by their respective health services.
Clive now lives in a rebuilt farmhouse in the Umbrian region of Italy along with Damaris, his writer wife of 22 years and their three rescue dogs. Apart from his fictional work, Clive also writes commercial non-fiction on a variety of topics but especially relating to business and employment. He and Damaris run an indie publishers called Any Subject Books Ltd –
You can also follow Any Subject Books on Facebook –
Clive is now disabled but, aside from his writing, he also enjoys playing the keyboard, listening to music and reading.
Contact details:



  1. I totally agree with what you wrote in this post. I've read books where the authors described every detail of the characters' appearance, everything to what kind of makeup they were wearing to what kinds of shoes they had on. And this didn't just happen the first time the characters appeared; the authors would describe them every single time they showed up in the book!

  2. Thank you and I love the name!

    Tedious, isn't it, when a book does that? It's pure self-indulgence on the part of the author. "I've got a hobby-horse and I want you to climb up in the saddle with me."