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Woolworth or Tiffany’s?

by Janelle James

Simplicity is beautiful. When I was a little girl, my mother and I walked by a Tiffany’s display window. We stopped and stared in appreciation. My mother placed her hand on my back and lowered her voice. “Janelle, think of a dime store display window that is so cluttered you can’t even take it all in. Now look at this simple black velvet background showcasing one beautiful diamond.” She then uttered three words that echo in my head to this day. “Less is more.”

My husband, Nathan, I and just moved into a high-rise condo in San Francisco. Its walls are windows. The views are dizzying, gorgeous. The last thing we want to do is clutter them with too much decor. I’ll place a large plant by the window, step back, and hear the words, “Less is more.” And the plant goes away.

I’m learning to do the same with my writing. I tend to write cluttered. But Nathan is teaching me to de-clutter. He has a master’s in fiction writing from Columbia, so I asked him to proofread my latest manuscript. He gave it back to me in a 20 percent lighter version. I had to admit: the edited prose was tighter, cleaner, clearer. It gained by losing words.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan is releasing her latest book, “Black Box,” on Twitter. She sends tweets throughout the day, and The New Yorker compiles them. Each sentence is short and powerful. Much of what makes the story so intriguing and compelling is what is not said. Here is the first chapter:

People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.
The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.
If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.
Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.
The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.
When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.

That’s it. What is written? Not much. What is said? Quite a bit.

Obviously, “Black Box” is an extreme example of sparse writing. I have no plans to pare down my writing style to this degree. However, it does make me appreciate how much can be said with only a few words.

One of my favorite opening lines of a novel is from “Her Unlikely Family” by Missy Tippens. “If there was one thing Josie knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.” In two dozen words, we already know so much. And what isn’t said makes us want to know more.

Next time you get out your editing pen, ask yourself, “Do I want my writing to be like a cluttered dime store, or the simplicity and drama of a Tiffany’s display?” Don’t be scared to slash words. In writing, as in life, sometimes less truly is more.


Janelle James loves her career as a social media specialist working with Fortune 500 brands everyday. She also loves burying herself in books…either reading them or writing them. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Nathan, who she met at an ACFW conference, and her daughter Annie. Thankfully, her older daughter Chloe and her son Wyatt live close by.

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5 Responses to Woolworth or Tiffany’s?

  1. Janelle, thanks for mentioning the opening of my book! I had a lot of fun writing that opening. I have to admit my critique partner, Lindi Peterson, gave me the idea to compare his fragrance to Fort Knox. :)

    I agree with idea that “less is more,” a lesson I’m constantly trying to put into practice. Great post!

  2. Janelle James says:

    Hi Missy. I’m glad you got to see this post. I love your writing. All the best, Janelle

  3. Yvonne Riley says:

    Enjoyed your article ~ You have always been a gifted writer!

  4. Oh, Janelle, I am a chronic over-writer. I need to print your post and display it on my desk! :)

  5. Rita says:

    Fantastic post! I feel the urge to critique my first chapter, again. :)