Thursday, August 20, 2015

Secrets to Writing for Kids: Less is Almost Always More

I did think very carefully before putting “almost always” in that title. Like any writing advice, sometimes breaking convention is necessary—not that it even needs to be necessary. Breaking convention for style, for impact, for contrast, is all perfectly valid.

I’m an overwriter by nature. You’d know where that habit originates if you ever saw me get nervous in a social situation. Instead of shutting up, or talking more slowly until I feel better, nervousness makes me talk (usually to my own horror) much faster—as if I’m hoping to cover up how nervous I feel with more words. Using words like a blanket, muffling the outside world with them.

So almost all of my second and third drafts involve stripping out gobs and gobs of overwriting. As my agent pointed out to me once, I overwrite when I get nervous, when I don’t know what comes next. My fingers can type fast, I think, so if I get a little lost, why not to put some more words down until the thread comes back to me? Fill the space?

Much like eating a giant burrito, it’s a great solution until you have to deal with it again later. Which is where I found myself last week, stripping and trimming and shaving away.

The worst part? That bonsai-pruning style of editing is the most tedious kind of editing, because you can’t just cut out whole swaths of text. Nope. You have to dig through all the descriptions that you’ve written twice as long as necessary, all the extra character blocking and inner monologues and shave it back to something manageable.

This is probably why I hate revising with so much passion when many, many of my writing friends seem to love it. When I’m feeling really bitter, I imagine that for them, revising is like sanding and polishing a nice new table they’ve just built with their bare hands.

Ahh, you smug bastards probably think, watching the natural colors of the wood emerge, the surface turning shiny and smooth. My handiwork.

For me, it’s like a nightmare in which I’ve suddenly grown a beard. I have to pluck out every single new, invading hair on my face with tweezers, individually, one at a time.


So, as I plucked away for the last few weeks on the second draft of a new manuscript, I kept asking myself: what am I doing wrong? What assumption am I making about my reader—or not making—that’s disturbing the flow of the novel so much, and making it so much slower and longer than necessary?

I only just figured it out on this last draft that I put together, thanks to my co-author’s clever feedback.

The problem is repetition. Usually, it goes like this:

Character A: I have six brothers.
Character B: Whoa! Six brothers.
Character A: Yeah. Six.
Character B’s inner monologue: So she has six brothers! No wonder she’s sassy and knows how to hold her own with the overbearing male in our group. She’s had to grow up with six brothers!

I don’t know why it is that so many children’s writers, myself included, feel the need to bludgeon our readers over the head with these kinds of “truthy” moments. Perhaps we assume our reader is stupid and hasn’t caught up yet. (This assumption is often made about children, and it is always incorrect.)

When I find myself writing like this, it originates in this feeling: wanting to make absolutely sure my reader understands what I’m trying to tell him. I almost feel a panic that maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the setup or the stakes, and I’ll have lost my reader just when I need him to be in the loop.


“Less is more” is one of those irritating little aphorisms that, on the surface, means almost nothing—there are many contexts wherein less is not, in fact, more.

But in writing, where half of the work of playing a movie in your reader’s head is being done by your reader’s own imagination—less actually is more.

I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing, but please understand where I’m coming from when I say: your mere words printed on paper cannot compete with the sheer processing power and graphics card of an imagination.

It is like putting a beige box running MS Dos next to your new seventeen-inch laptop. There is no point trying to compete with a reader’s imagination for bandwidth in that imaginary world, because the imagination is just better at it. That’s what the imagination was built for.

Your job, as the author, is to stimulate that imagination—not try to take its place. Your job is to give the imagination all the parts and pieces it needs to assemble the larger picture, to make the movie happen that you’re trying to play in there.

But give the imagination too much, and you only get in the way of your own story. Lean too hard on repetition, on shoving those “truthy” moments in your reader’s face, and the reader thinks, but I already got there. I beat you to it.

And probably gets a sense that you don’t respect her.

There are certain assumptions I believe you can always make about your readers, even children—actually, not “even,” but especially children. One of those assumptions is that your reader is a thinking, rational, relatively intelligent being.

It sounds obvious, but let me go back to my ridiculous example about the six brothers, and imagine it again with this new assumption.

Character A: I have six brothers.
Character B: Jeez, you don’t have to share a bathroom with them, do you?
Character A: No, but I have to fight to get a full plate at dinner before they’ve had seconds.
Character B fondly remembers a moment where Character A stood up for them against an older male bully.

There is no proselytizing or monologuing. The reader understands how these things connect, and by extension, they understand that Character B also understands how they connect. Trust that the reader has gotten there with you.

When your writing condescends, even accidentally, it loses some of its authorial power. It makes the reader aware that there even exists an authorial power. When the reader thinks, “But I’m already there, I’ve already connected the dots, so why are you telling me this?”

That moment of truth you were trying to hit home? Falls totally flat.

So in those “truthy” moments, go with less rather than more. Reject the instinct to cover up your nervousness with words. 

You’re less likely to get in your own way, and what does emerge will ring louder in the emptiness.

Kiersi is an author and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She has a pet frog named Highlander and a dragon tattoo. Kiersi focuses her fiction efforts on fantasy and contemporary Middle-grade, Young Adult, and sometimes New Adult. She loves building worlds and finds CIA movies confusing.

Where to find Kiersi: Twitter, Website 

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