Why the Phrase 'Less Is More' Means So Much to Tracy Chevalier

The Girl With a Pearl Earring author draws inspiration from the minimalist architect Mies van de Rohe.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Some writers have a mantra that leads them in their work, a guiding star to follow when they're lost deep in the woods. For bestselling historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, this mantra isn't from another writer—it's just three words attributed to minimalist architect and designer, Mies van der Rohe.

The application of "less is more," a phrase Mies did not invent but made famous, can be seen in many of the architect's signature works, such as the Brno chair, a streamlined cantilever chair that uses a single c-shaped piece of steel as both armrest and weight support. Since then, the aphorism has been absorbed by many established disciplines and the emerging fields of our new century: You can see its influence in clean website design, the buttonless simplicity of tablets and iPhones, and the stripped-down ethos of lo-fi rock.

When writing her novels—including her 1999 bestseller, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and her latest, The Last Runaway—Chevalier follows van der Rohe's motto as she goes through drafts with a black pen, cutting what she calls the "flab." In the manuscript pages she gave me (one of which is below), you can see this magic at work.

Years ago when I left a publishing job to do an MA in creative writing, my boss gave me an eraser on which he had penned the words "Less is more." A phrase popularized by the German-American architect Mies van der Rohe to describe a stripped-down style of building design, it has come to be applied to everything from clothes to acting methods.

My boss was prescient in his choice of advice. Several years later I began writing a novel [Girl With a Pearl Earring] about a Vermeer painting and discovered that, in imitating the Dutch painter's spare, focused style, I was discovering my own. I do not—cannot—write long Jamesian sentences. I prefer Anglo-Saxon over Latinate words. My characters act rather than analyze. Even as I write this I am cutting words that could be left in, seeing how close to the bone I can get before meaning falls apart. Pretty close, I find.

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A poet friend taught me how to do it. He took a few pages I had written and went through each sentence, suggesting I cut this word, that word. It's surprising how much flab there is in most writing. Now when I edit I ask that each word justify its place. The process is exhausting, but it works.

Taking away concentrates what's left. Restraint is powerful. In Girl With a Pearl Earring, the two main characters touch just twice—a hand, an ear—but readers tell me those are some of the most erotic moments they've read. In my new novel, The Last Runaway, the heroine is a Quaker and says little, in keeping with the tradition of silence at Quaker meetings. Through the drafts I kept cutting her lines, so that now when Honor Bright speaks, you notice.

By using fewer words, I am also giving readers the chance to fill the gaps with their own. "Less is more" encourages collaboration, which is what a book should be—a contract between writer and reader.