Less is more

I know, as writers, we have heard this principle many times and in the early days I struggled to understand just what people meant by it. In time,I learnt to look out for long rambling sentences, saying the same in two or more different ways or using a word many times because I have just fallen in love with it.

I have come across several examples of this recently.

The writer of a book I have just finished clearly fell in love with the word ‘uxorious’. Sometimes writers use these words to show the rest of us how much she/he knows and how little we know.

So do you know what ‘uxorious’ is? I did not. I’ll give you a clue. The novel was about Henry the Third’s devotion to his wife and her excessive spending which he paid for by taxing his people. It almost brought England to its knees. A reference to the king’s excessive generosity to Eleanor, and it appears repeatedly, becomes predictable, and roll your eyes boring. It was as though the writer discovered this word, fell in love with it, and wanted to let the world know she had unearthed this fantastic new word. And going through her head at the same time may well have been the mantra, “Oh, and by the way….aren’t I really clever.” A phrase such as, “he loved Eleanor so much he would have done anything to please her” would cover what uxorious meant and not sent us diving for the dictionary and thus breaking the reader/writer experience.

The second example of over writing is when a writer tells us the same information over and over using different words. This is truly tedious. For example, in this same book, the point is made that “…everything was worth it to please Eleanor and win the approval of her family’. Various versions of this appeared at the end of most chapters until I found myself clicking my tongue and saying to myself…” I’ve got it, the guy was an idiot who jeopardised political stability of his country to please his wife’s never ending demands and whims. I was ready to shout…”

 We all do it. We fall into the trap of loving our words, clever turns of phrase, which we think the reader really needs to experience. The problem is the reader does not. If we have said it once then we do not need to repeat it.

I first heard about purple prose at a local creative writing course and guess who the standout perpetrator of this crime was. Yes, me. I loved writing beautiful phrases but, wow, I was good at flooding them with purple prose. Let’s think of one example:

As they walked along the lane, pleased they no longer quarrelled, the two lovers held hands and admired the blue lavender flowers interspersed with dainty daisies. The trees that lined the lane were beautiful autumn colours and as the lovers looked into each other’s eyes they saw the bluest sky and the bluest sea they could imagine….In fact it seemed as though the sun had caught their mood and sent bright yellow rays between those gorgeous pure white daisy petals and pierced their hearts….

There would have been a time when I congratulated myself on creating that piece. Now I’m just plain embarrassed.

CS Larkin, on her website, has the following to say:

Overwriting takes many forms. Wordiness. Overuse of modifiers and weak sentence construction. Vagueness. Redundancy. Convolution. Pushing metaphors so far beyond the breaking point that they cease to be enlightening and become ridiculous instead. Purple prose.


I recommend you read her article. The trick is to write enough so you keep your reader engaged but don’t keep blabbing on long after you have made your point. And that is a very fine balancing trick!


I have just one last thing to say. This is all a challenge…to find the right balance between saying too much and not enough. What the right balance for you is practice alone will reveal. Honest readers are also good at letting you know. Be ready for feedback that is not positive. It is usually the best kind for learning.

less is more
over writing


I have to agree. I've been trying to read "Operation Wandering Soul" by Richard Powers. It sounds like a nice book to read "...a novel about imagination and memory. At once a social indictment and an intensely emotional account of intimate need, it asks how we might keep alive, a little longer, the vanishing narratives of childhood."
But it takes him nine pages to describe the drive to work...
Thank you Angela and Sumanda. You both make excellent points. Wow, nine pages to describe a drive to work. It sounds like a lot but without seeing it, I can't really comment. The test is how engaging and interesting are the words on those 9 pages?
First paragraph of the book:
Kraft cruises down the Golden State: would it were so. "Cruise" is a generous figure of speech at best, label from another time and biome still imbued with quaint, midcentury vigor, the incurably sanguine suggestion of motion more forward than lateral. "Cruise" is for the Autobahn, the Jet Stream, Club Med. What's the real word, local parlance? Shoosh. Shunt. Slalom.

I've reached page 78, but I keep this book for when I have insomnia. :)