Less is More

Unless we’re counting the TV show Justified, I’m not particularly familiar with Elmore Leonard’s work. However, I am familiar with his 10 rules of writing.

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Writing rules are like the Pirate’s Code1 – more like guidelines than actual rules. Writers are often told that they should ignore what doesn’t work for them, and that’s largely true – for example, stopping while I still know what needs to happen next works for me; making myself work for a set number of minutes or hours doesn’t. But when I look at rules 8-10 on Leonard’s list I’m less convinced that we should be so quick to pick and choose.

If I may digress for a moment, I have 2 reading modes: leisure and critical. In my leisure mode I read fast, and if you slow the story down with a lot of description I’m not going to read it; I’ll skim in the hope that I don’t miss anything important, but basically I want action. In critical reading mode I slow right down, take out the tweezers and magnifying glass, and ask “Why is this here and what does it mean?” about almost every sentence. It’s easier to do the latter having already done the former (unless you’re reading Ulysses, in which case it’s ok to just ask “Why?” about every sentence, then take some painkillers and have a lie-down). I’m telling you this because what I’ve discovered from studying literature (critical reading mode) is that my mental picture of a book’s world is closer to what the author wrote when the description pills are crushed up and hidden in the story ice cream.

I’m not saying that description isn’t important; I’m saying I don’t think it should be noticeable. If your characters arrive at a new place and you dump a paragraph of description on me I’ll skip it because I want to know what happens next. Which means I’ll be baffled when the characters know something important that you unfortunately buried in that paragraph of description. If you include minimal amounts of description as they move into the new place, I’m more likely to remember what you need me to know about it.

You should also know that I don’t waste time picturing the things that I read. My brain looks at the words and trawls my memory to see if we’ve seen this before. For example, long descriptions in a book set in Lancashire feel unnecessary because I used to live there. My brain basically goes “ok, Lancashire fells, Pendle hill” and in subsequent descriptions just inserts pictures from my memory and ignores the text. I get that not everyone is familiar with Lancashire, but my point is that you don’t need to describe trees, or lakes, or cities, except to describe what’s unique or plot-relevant about them. If it’s just a tree, or lake, or city, my brain will not waste processing power on picturing it – it will just offer me one of the multiple examples of those things that I’ve already seen.

Nor am I the only one that feels this way. From the unscientific poll I conducted to confirm my opinion (I asked my sister), to Chuck Wendig’s occasionally foul-mouthed musings in The Kick-Ass Writer, to lists of rules such as the ones at the top of this post, everything I’ve read on the subject seems to agree that less is more. So why do writers keep writing pages and pages of description?

It may be a confidence thing (by which I mean they have no confidence in the reader to fill in the gaps) or perhaps it’s a control issue (“this is my vision and I must fully flesh it out so that readers picture exactly what I want them to”). Either way, once you’ve put your story out there, we readers are at liberty to skip what we want, and will form our own picture of the world you’ve created. So please, trust your story, and trust your readers.


1. I mean the Disney Pirate’s Code; the real ones tended to stipulate dismemberment and/or death for those who broke them.

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