Less is Generally More
April 17, 2018
Show me the last five emails you wrote.
I’ve never actually said this, but this is my temptation when people ask me to assess their writing.
Trust me, I feel incredibly presumptuous giving writing advice (and incredibly flattered anyone would ask), but since some people DO ask, I feel compelled to pass along information that is as helpful as possible. And since I’m generally not in a position to read people’s manuscripts (refer to my pesky day job as evidence of how lucrative a typical fiction-writing career is), I’m tempted to counsel aspiring writers to take their own inventory.
That’s where their last five emails come in handy.
The way I figure it, the surest sign of literary talent is writing consistently well in every form of communication. Even grocery lists hint at skills invaluable in crafting a novel: Did you spell “cantaloupe” correctly, or at least abbreviate it understandably? Did you categorize your items by section, suggesting an efficient and well-organized thought process? Did you include enough (but not too much) information, such as specifying whole milk when you usually buy skim?
Likewise, simple emails, texts, or social media posts can speak volumes about one’s talent for wordsmithing. This doesn’t mean you have to inject cleverness in everything you write. That’s just annoying. In fact, writing mundane things well often means forgoing your personal flair, if that better serves the message. If you want someone to read an email stressing the importance of something mind-numbingly boring – filling out a form properly, say – it better be pithy. It better get to the point immediately. It better give crystal-clear instructions about how to complete this mind-numbingly boring task. It better scream, “I know you’ve got a million more important things to think about than this, so I’m going to do everything possible to respect your time.” Without actually saying that. Because that just takes up more time.
Likewise, good writing frequently observes the importance of under-hyping. Even toddlers in our consumer-saturated society know when they’re being played. Throw too many superlative adjectives in your quest to lure me to your conference and you forfeit credibility. Over-sell your message and you look shrill, amateurish and desperate. Toss around trite words or clichéd phrases and prepare for eyes to glaze over. Try too hard to convince me how incredible something is and you virtually guarantee the opposite reaction you’re looking for. Good writing is subtle. It’s nuanced. It anticipates eye-rolls and does everything possible to avoid them. It respects the intelligence of its readers.
Along those lines, good writing is muscular and economic, especially when it has to be. Like that shopping list, it is well-organized. It is not redundant. It uses parallel construction in bullet points. It flows logically. It doesn’t tell the reader that “it is important to note” whatever, because the reader gleans from your excellent grasp of the language that you wouldn’t be wasting his time at all were the information not important to note. It sprinkles italics, bold face and exclamation points as discerningly as a chef sprinkles seasonings. It lives and breathes the philosophy that less is generally more.
So how do your five most recent emails stack up? Do they suggest sure-footed agility . . . or clunky plodding? Do they flow . . . or do they clog? Do they inspire . . . or do they repel?
I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that an unflinching assessment of your most mundane communication will provide invaluable insight into your manuscript.