August 2018


Minimalism in Writing

“Of all that is written I love only what a man has written in his own blood” – Friedrich Nietzsche


There is something I love about the Hemingway approach to writing: that bare bones, tip of the iceberg idea. It reminds me of the saying ‘There are writers, and then there are typists.’ After all, anyone can write a million words without really saying anything, but it takes a special kind of skill to hit someone in the gut in the space of a sentence or even a few words.

When I’ve gone back to read the lines or scenes in other books which got to me the most what I found is that the words themselves are never responsible. It’s all about the context of the story. The writer goes to extreme lengths to construct a roller coaster of ups and downs and character relations, so that when that pivotal scene arrives they can deliver immense emotional power with a simple line.

The philosophy of minimalism is essentially this: if you remove everything superfluous, then what remains is more valuable, useful, and available to you. What good is a beautiful painting if it is buried under a mountain of junk? Do you have a good friend, but waste your time meeting with a hundred acquaintances for the sake of expedience?

In Strunk and White’s immortal The Elements of Style, rule 13 is ‘Omit Needless Words.’ That’s minimalism. If you want to give your work power, eliminate every word except those which absolutely must be there. If you have a story in which every word serves a purpose (or more than one) and is undeniably essential, then you’ve got something strong. Even if it’s not a good story, necessarily, at least it will be clear – and make no mistake, clarity is the ultimate goal.

Like all things, however, it’s a tool that can be misused. The way you misuse the tool of minimalism is by thinking certain words or paragraphs aren’t important when they actually are. I have written good stories and subsequently ruined them by over-editing. I killed too many darlings, ruthlessly eliminated ‘wordy’ scenes, and erased too many colourful metaphors, characters and adjectives. Not every adverb is a sin, and not every descriptive passage is indulgent.

These days, I strive for minimalism more carefully. The first rule of editing is: do no harm. There is a certain charm to the roughness of a first draft, and you can kill a story just as easily by eliminating the passion as you can by leaving in too much fluff. I find I can eliminate about ten percent of what I write without worrying that I’m deleting anything important. However I can usually reduce the story by another five to ten percent by removing things which are not obviously superfluous on first reading, or by rewriting them to more efficiently serve their purpose.

That latter point is important. When you write first draft, you don’t always know what you’re getting at. Often you write around a subject as you try to get to the heart of it, like a shark circling prey. One you get to it, though, you can dispense with the circling and go straight for it. Ah, you will think on the third or fourth reading of a scene – that’s what the point of this was supposed to be. Boom! rewrite and reduce. This is the reason you can often remove the first one or two paragraphs of any story – these are words you’re often spending as the writer flailing in the dark, looking for a place to begin. Once you find it, the initial flailing is just a waste. Get rid of it.

So, like all the tools, it’s a difficult balancing act. The benefit of taking a minimalist approach to your writing, however, is great: more clarity, more power, and less room for the reader to get lost in a blizzard of words. I know you’ve read books like this: thousand page tomes with eight adjectives trailing every noun and paragraphs that stretch for country miles.

Don’t be that guy. Write as if every word you put down cost you a dollar. It’s not, after all, your words the readers are paying for: it’s what you’re actually saying.

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