Minimalist Writing

Why you should be trying to write with as few words as possible.

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There’s not one writing style that is correct. Every writer will eventually develop their own that they use and that defines them as a writer. It will adapt and change, depending on the story being told, but there will always be elements of the writer in it.

What is definitely emerging as my style is a rather minimalist approach to writing. My current novel is using that to the extreme and I’m writing with no description, dialogue tags, or anything similar. For instance, one of my chapters that has quite a lot going on in it is a little over 700 words. When I started, it genuinely surprised me how much you can convey through such a small word count. You should try it too.

I’m not saying that you should write your entire novel like I am. But, doing this as an exercise is something that every writer should explore. Keeping your writing as brief as is humanly possible lets you realise what is actually required in your story; everything else is surplus.

If we look at a quote from a book, we can see how we can change it to say the same thing—mostly—but with less words.

“It was a fine…day…I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin. After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbours; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering…I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde.”

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson took 141 words to put that across. I will attempt it in less than ten.

“After only a condescending thought I became Hyde again.”

Now, I’m certainly not saying that my shortened version is better than Stevenson’s, or that the minimalist way is the right way to write. Stevenson’s version is certainly more interesting and creates a better image in your mind, but my nine words makes the same point: Jekyll doesn’t need the potion to turn to Hyde anymore, and the trigger can be something as slight as thinking himself better than others.

Writing in this way really helps you nail what the focus of a section is. In writing, your ultimate objective is always: What is my point and how do I convey it to the reader? If you know your focus, then you can complete that objective very easily.

So, as an exercise, go and write a piece of extremely minimalist fiction. You can write some flash fiction or take a passage from a book and condense it down to its bare minimum. I cut over 90% of Stevenson’s words out in that passage and didn’t really lose any of the focus or the point. It lost other things—of course—but, as an exercise, it does show how you can do a lot with very little. And it is a tool that you should be using in all of your writing. Varying sentence and/or paragraph length is a very good technique to control impact and power of your words. So, give this a go and see if it can help your writing.

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David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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