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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

In Writing, Little Can Be Much

by Linore Rose Burkard

This past week I took part in "National Life-Chain Sunday," during which I stood on a sidewalk with a few dozen other souls, holding a sign for passing drivers to read.
My sign had only three words: 
Short. Succinct.

Because little can be much.
I could have chosen a different sign, such as one bearing five words:


This one, too, packed a big punch in few words. 

There were other signs available. But all had only a few words because they needed to be read quickly by drivers going by. As I held the sign and watched the traffic passing, I saw that we had three to five seconds, on average, in which a driver could read the message. 

In case you haven't noticed, getting attention online is not all that different.

Instead of driving past, readers surf by your carefully crafted blog headline, or email newsletter subject line, or expensive ad. Blogs, landing pages, newsletters and ads all share the need to grab attention and hook a reader--or they're gone (in three seconds or less, according to some pundits).

Copywriters know this, and make an art of crafting the perfect headlines to catch the attention of their audiences. But what if novelists practiced this? Not just creating the attention-grabbing line, but doing it with as few words as possible.  I wonder if we would become stronger writers. 

Because in many instances in writing, less is more. Little can be much.

Take description. A newer writer shared a chapter of her book with me recently in which she described a main character who had not yet entered the story in person. The description was complete, head to toe, and not badly written. The problem is that it read like a catalogue, perfectly normal, not remarkable--in a word, utterly forgettable. How much more effective had she merely singled out one characteristic of that character? He might have had a noticeable scar, or tattoo. He might have limped when he walked, or spoken with an accent; The distinct feature isn't important in itself--but ONE distinct feature would have made this character memorable, whereas a dozen did just the opposite.

Less would have been more. 

A great way to see "less is more" in action is to read effective tweets on Twitter, bumper stickers, or, my favorite, T-shirt slogans. The element of surprise, of juxtaposing an idea with an unexpected parallel, seems to work quite well here. Perhaps the principle of a startling analogy is something we can keep in mind when writing our own headlines or other copy--or even a character description. 

See how the following t-shirt slogans are short and sweet--and effective:       

  • A SISTER will give you the shirt off her's probably yours anyway
  • IRONY. The opposite of wrinkly.
  • Relish Today.  Ketchup Tomorrow.
  • At my age I've seen it all, I've heard it all, I've done it all. I just can't remember it all.
  • This IS my Sexy Lingerie.
  • I'M ALWAYS LATE. My ancestors arrived on the Juneflower.

The comedic aspect of the surprising parallel needn't always be present as in the above examples. Even a serious writer can use a startling juxtaposition to make a point. 

  • PAIN AND SUFFERING IS INEVITABLE.  But misery is optional. 
  • There is no worse robber than a bad book. (Italian proverb)
  • Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. (S.Kierkegaard)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...(Dickens)
Whether you feel juxtaposition (a la the startling parallel) translates to writing fiction or not, it is probably a worthwhile endeavor to learn to use the principle, at least in marketing copy.

I'd like to be purposeful about trying it, as I tend to be wordy if left unchecked. And in writing, as we've seen, less can be more.

Linore Rose Burkard wrote a trilogy of regency romances for the Christian market before there were any regencies for the Christian market. Her books opened up the genre in the CBA. She also writes YA Suspense/Apocalyptic fiction as L.R. Burkard. Married with five children, she still home-schools her youngest daughter, preferably with coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other. Her latest book, RESILIENCE, is "spine-tingling suspense, where teens carry rifles instead of school books and where survival might mean becoming your own worst enemy."   

It's a great time to be a fan of YA novels! L.R.Burkard is back with the next tale in her dystopian series, and the bar of excellence is raised to new heights with this top quality literary offering!
                                --Deena Peterson, Blogger, Reviewer


  1. I put my comment in the wrong place. Ugh! This is great advice and I shared it.

  2. Glad to see your article on this topic. As a poet and a writer of children's books, I totally agree. Many poems and articles don't do well because they're not concise. Writing small can be big!


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