Writers: Whatever You’re Doing, Do Less Of It

As I prepare to welcome in another class of MFA in Creative Writing students, I’m reminded of what I tell pretty much all of them during their first few weeks in the program: whatever you’re doing, do less of it.

This applies to all elements of their writing and, honestly, I think it’s kind of frustrating for a lot of them to hear. I get it. I was there once. This stuff wasn’t easy for me, either.

Since I consider myself a minimalist, the idea of doing less is especially important to me in prose, and I’ve written about it here, but I think it also applies to plot, characters, and theme.

And it’s relative.

I never try to make students into versions of myself (goodness, who would want to be like me?), but rather address the habit so many young writers have of doing more than they need to. More words, more characters, more affected prose, more explanations — more than makes for a good story.

But doing less doesn’t mean becoming like Hemingway or Hempel. It means scaling back from where you are, not to a predetermined point.

I always wonder why young writers overwrite. I know I did. Man I did. Personally, I was trying to imitate the writers I admired, that I wanted to be like, but who were not the kind of writers I really wanted to write like. Salman Rushdie is my personal, prime example. I do love his books, and admire him as a person, but I can’t write like that. It’s not how my mind works. I took a while to finally figure that out, but when I did my writing got so much better and I found success right away.

Probably there’s some of that imitation for some young writers. But not for everyone.

More generally, I think it’s a trust issue. Young writers don’t trust themselves or they don’t trust their readers. Maybe both. The former is why people imitate (well, I know it’s why I did), the latter is why they include superfluous elements in their writing.

Basically, everyone wants so badly to be understood that they include things which they think make it impossible for the reader to be confused. Problem is, sometimes the reader is confused by the mass of information. And, if they’re not, they probably feel pandered to by the author.

I get the instinct — no writer wants a reader to be confused — but trying so hard to avoid that ruins part of the story.

I always tell my students to err on the side of leaving out more, of possibly confusing the reader, and to let workshop tell them where they missed the mark. Most of the time, they’re surprised at how little confusion results, and they find the line where their kind of writing engages the reader to the right degree, lets the reader to the right kind of work, the work that draws people into a story.

And it takes less to get there than most people think.