One of my favorite lines in literature comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Polonius’ several lines thereafter complete the joke, but I’ve always taken that sentence as good writing advice. Why use three words when you can use one? The right one.
On the other hand, my former instructor John Rechy used to tell us, “Why use three words when you can use ten? But make that tenth count.” While I generally subscribe to Shakespeare’s philosophy, John’s maxim worked beautifully while editing the manuscript of my novel The Last Night.
In the drafting process, I would cut words or sentences to shorten the length of a chapter—for example, to prevent a line or two from spilling onto an otherwise blank page. Then, while transferring the manuscript to the paperback edition, a few more orphan lines appeared; so I repeated the earlier step.
There was roughly a one-to-one correlation between manuscript length and finished book. However, to my surprise, the ends of some chapters filled a quarter page—not short enough to delete, but just long enough to leave alone. The problem came when I found that some of the passages I had cut in the manuscript stage ended up creating flow problems in the final narrative.
This had everything to do my ear. It didn’t sound right because I remembered the exact writing that was absent because of a technicality. Also, frankly, I missed those small moments that weren’t absolutely necessary to the plot but added the right amount of flavor. So, I returned those pieces to plug the holes. This revision improved the story, which confirmed that these words rightfully belonged.
In the end, don’t worry so much about page count. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but if you need to write ten words instead of three, that tenth word may be the crescendo you’ve been building toward the whole time.