This week has been busy. Thursday night I went to an LGBTQ YA panel at McNally Jackson, which was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. I got to see Lindsay Ribar (The Fourth Wish) and Michael Barakiva (One Man Guy), meet Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), Adam Silvera (More Happy than Not), and Dahlia Adler (Under the Lights)–and also hang out with some kind of cool people.
It was so great to get to see Amy again, and meet the others in person for the first time. It’s always so weird and awesome meeting internet people.
Friday I attended the ticker tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes for the US women’s soccer team, in honor of winning the World Cup(!!), followed by the ceremony at City Hall. (Of course I watched that part on the jumbotron from across the street, but still. Super cool.)
Saturday I finally caught my first Broadway show of my two months in NYC: a matinee of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Darren Criss. Afterward I read in Central Park for the rest of the evening. (I like it here.)
ANYWAY. Now that I’ve gushed endlessly about my week: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.
Between internships and helping friends, I’ve critiqued a good number of stories at this point. Probably somewhere between twenty or thirty full novels, along with who knows how many novel openings, random scenes, and short stories. And through all of these, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that writers generally have a tendency to over-explain things to the reader.
I’ve talked before about trusting the reader, but always as more of a smaller part of a larger picture. But this is important, so I figured it was time it got its own post.
If you’re a writer, chances are you’re also a reader. And if you like to read, chances are you’re a pretty awesome person. And if you’re a pretty awesome person, chances are you’re also, you know, not unintelligent.
And what does all of this together mean?
Chances are, you’re trustworthy.
I don’t mean this in, like, the traditional “you can trust that there human with your innocent, adorable, very kidnappable children” kind of trustworthy (although, chances are, readers are also not the type of people who would run around offering candy to random five-year-olds, because hello, why do that when it would cut into your reading time). But I do mean that readers are trustworthy in the way that we don’t need absolutely everything explained to us in explicit detail.
This is often easier to figure out from a macro perspective than a micro one. You don’t have to go through the step by step process of your protagonist getting ready for the day for us to understand that things have happened between her waking up and leaving for school, right? That’s common sense.
Despite this, a lot of the writers for whom I’ve critiqued–especially those who’ve given me the privilege of reading their earlier drafts–haven’t expanded this idea to the micro level in their writing. The line-by-line level.
The reader doesn’t need the author to explain that “he fell down.” Down is the traditional direction of motion when you fall, so the word “fell” inherently implies a movement downward. (If “he fell up,” it’s a different story, because it no longer follows the traditional meaning of the word.)
Similarly, we don’t need to know that a character “screamed in horror” if she’s just spotted herself in the mirror for the first time after a bad makeover, or that someone “wrinkled his nose at the smell” while taking out the trash. The scene dictates these things already for us.
Descriptions like these bog down writing, because they’re redundant. The reader doesn’t gain anything from them, so instead they work against the writing. Make the scene run slower; make it feel less interesting; make it easier for the reader to get distracted. (These words are basically empty calories that don’t even do you the service of tasting good.) (Like those crappy potato chips you eat so you won’t look pathetic at a party where you don’t know anyone.)
Of all the issues writers can run into, I think this is one of the hardest ones to fix. Not because it’s an inherently difficult issue to pinpoint (see examples above), but because it’s easy to second guess yourself.
The manuscript I was revising the past year was neck deep in redundancies like these and I thought that because I had learned how to recognize them, I’d be able to get rid of them SUPER EASILY. But then I started wondering, “Will the reader actually get what I’m saying if I don’t point that out, though?” and “What if it’s not obvious enough?” and “What if the sentence is confusing without this?”
It’s easy to be afraid of messing up. When you over-explain things, you know you’re in the clear. No matter what, the reader will get what you’re saying. But you also run the risk of losing the reader to boredom, or annoying the reader, or any number of things.
So, I took a chance and cut all my little “explaining” descriptions. Sent the MS to my critique partners.
And while occasionally someone had a question about what I meant by something, or wanted more of an explanation behind an action, generally they didn’t miss those redundant explanations. At all.
Readers want your writing to make them feel smart. You know this–you’re a reader. So make them feel smart by treating them like they’re smart. (Spoiler: they are.)
Let us fill in the blanks. Allude to things. Tell us steps A and C and let us figure out step B. Be careful not to lay too many hints to what’s going to happen next, because chances are we’ve already figured it out.
Trusting the reader is key. It allows the reader the chance to find a plot twist surprising; to flip through your pages at a hundred miles an hour, because the writing flies by; to fall in love with your characters and world and you.
Books are about trust. By picking up a book, readers take a risk. They choose to trust an author.
Trust them back.
Thanks for reading!