The Art of Writing Less

Write less, say more, this could also have been called. It’s a point people made in various ways about my recent blog on Hemingway’s shortest story – that sometimes the art with writing is to write economically.

It’s something Raymond Carver, the peerless short story writer, knew well. Cutting and cutting at his drafts until he found the heart of a story – often with the help of his editor Gordon Lish. Carver, incidentally, hated to be called a minimalist – he thought it implied a lack of ambition or attainment. What he was, he said, was precise. And that’s something I try to be when I am writing. I aim, in the end, to find the one right word, rather than three which are close.

Often the way this editing process works is that you start with more words and then chip away at them. I like to compare this process to a sculptor chipping at a block of stone, or working with clay – finding the final form.

Here are a couple of examples I like of writers using just this process. Neither of them is a short story writer.

First there’s Leonard Cohen and his late period masterpiece Hallelujah. We’ll all have our favourite versions of this much covered song I’m guessing, but for my money you have to go a long way to beat the Jeff Buckley version which I think best encapsulates laughing Len’s intention that it should sound like a song about religion but really be a song about sex.

Anywho – assuming we’ve all heard one or other version of the song with its six or seven verses – it’s sobering to note that Leonard Cohen wrote more than 80 verses of this song before he settled on the ones which have become canonical.

Yes that’s not a misprint – 80 verses.

Here’s another example of an artist chipping away. The modernist poet Ezra Pound, not a very nice man, appalling political opinions, but he wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the language. One of these is my favourite haiku. Here it is:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The surprising truth is that, to get to this pure distillation of image and thought old Ezra started with no fewer than 30 lines – cutting them down to these 14 words. He called it Imagism – I’d call it hard work.

For the most part the reader doesn’t see the road the writer has taken to get to where he ends up. And why should they? What matters is the words on the page. But it’s interesting to note how many more of them there might have been.

14 thoughts on “The Art of Writing Less”

  1. My problem has been just the opposite: writing more. Coming from a newspaper background, it’s been difficult to write fiction. My first draft of my novel was so spare, it was barely 30,000 words. I had to get it up to 50,000 at least (which I did, but it was a long learning curve).

    1. Interesting that Betty – I’m from newspapers too. I would say one thing that training has helped me with is self editing – but I still have to do that editing to turn my clumsy first drafts into something I am eventually happy with.

  2. Excellent post/advice! I once had a creative writing teacher who said that sometimes chipping away unnecessary elements of a composition can turn something that is powerful, into a thunderbolt.

  3. Great post again Chris. I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen and one of his novels ‘Beautiful Losers’ is tight writing, short sentences, yet loses nothing of it’s beauty and spirituality. I found having to produce short stories of only 1500 words for exams was good practice.

    1. Thank you Sharon. I love Leonard Cohen too. I understand he was known as a novelist as a young man in Canada before he ever started writing songs, though I’ve not read his novels.

    1. Good luck with it Angela! It’s an interesting part of the writing process I think, and quite a fun part too, though it can be frustrating!

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