It’s my personal opinion that getting the words down on paper is the easy part, because at that point, the details don’t matter. Just throw a bunch of words down and take care of the specifics in the revision stage. That’s when it gets really tricky, because you’ve got to figure out which details to leave in and which ones to chuck.
I see this problem a lot with first page critiques. There may be a lot of good things going on: the story’s started in a good place, the protagonist is interesting, an engaging question or two is raised, conflict and tension are evident. But when we don’t get the details right, the story itself isn’t easy to read. Too little, and the reader isn’t engaged; they’re left feeling lacking. Too many, and the reader loses interest because it’s so much effort slogging through the unnecessary words and redundancies.
Sot how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?
One of the reasons we don’t know which details to include is because of our perspective. We’re too close to our writing to know if we’ve included too much, too little, or the wrong details altogether. The best way to learn if we’ve got a problem in this area is to let other people read our work.
If you don’t have enough detail, your readers might say something along the lines of…
I was confused.
I couldn’t picture the scene/character/etc.
The writing feels bare.
If you’ve included too much detail in a given passage, you’re likely to hear the following:
There’s a little too much going on.
The passage went on for too long.
There were too many adjectives or adverbs.
I found myself skimming (skipping ahead).
It has a melodramatic feel (because things are being overstated).
It feels a little wordy.
When you get feedback like this, you’ll need to revisit the passage to a) trim the details that are cluttering up your story, or b) include the details that add to it. And that brings us to our next point.
Know your purpose
Every passage should have a purpose. You might be setting the stage, sharing a character’s physical details, sharing backstory, or revealing information through a conversation. So it’s important to first identify what you’re hoping to accomplish. But even then, when a passage simply exists to convey information, it can read as boring to readers. To avoid this, give your passage a secondary purpose.
For instance, if you want to establish the setting, you could simply write
At the edge of the bluff stood a house with chipped paint and crooked shutters.
This does the trick; it conveys the setting to readers. But it’s a little blah. What if we chose to also characterize, using the house to represent the person who lives there?
The house stood at the highest point of the bluff, perfectly erect, lording over the pathetic trees. Its newly painted skin glistened. Its windows gleamed, staring unblinkingly at the cloudless sky.
With this description, we have a very clear image of what the house looks like, but we’ve also set the stage for the character who lives there. We can easily imagine the kind of appearance he or she might have and what their personality is like, so when they’re introduced later on, the stage has been set. The same is true if we’ve chosen our details to provide some contrast for our character. The reader is expecting to see a condescending, fastidious, perfectly-coifed resident. But when she emerges looking slovenly and unkempt, we’ve also accomplished our purpose.
Either way, the chosen details keep the passage focused on what’s important; there’s no need to also describe the lawn, or the weather, or the cars in the driveway. Knowing a passage or scene’s purpose can help you choose the details that are necessary, with no extraneous words.
(PSST! If you’re specifically interested in tightening up your setting descriptions and making them more intriguing, we cover this extensively in the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses.)
Ask the Right Questions
As with any other problem, the more you practice, the easier it gets. So over time, it becomes easier to recognize in your own writing those places that are a little over- or under-done. One way to do this is with an editing checklist for tricky areas.
I’d love to say that I’ve made one for you, but the truth is, someone beat me to it. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) is, hands down, the book I recommend most when critiquing. It’s one of the first resource books Angela and I read and explored when we first started writing, and I still use it to edit my fiction. It’s broken down into manageable chapters that each cover a problematic area of writing, and each chapter ends with a series of questions to help fine-tune your work. Here’s a sampling:
Look back over a scene or chapter that introduces one or more characters. How much time, if any, have you spent describing the new characters’ character? Are you telling us about particulars that will later show up in dialogue and action?
Translation: Have you chosen the right details (the ones that will characterize as well as describe the physical appearance)? Have you added details that are going to be repeated later (and should be cut here)?
Mark every –ly adverb. How many of them do you have? How many of them are based on adjectives describing an emotion (hysterically, angrily, morosely, and so forth)? You can probably do without most of them, though perhaps not all.
Translation: How many adverbs do you have that aren’t necessary and can be cut?
Breaking Up IS Easy to Do
If one of your scenes seems to drag, try paragraphing a little more often. Or, do you have scenes with no longer paragraphs?
Translation: Sometimes a scene reads as slow or clunky because there’s a problem with the structure rather than the details. Experiment with paragraph length and white space to see if that helps.
In addition to these topics, this book covers show and tell, point of view, voice, and so many others. It’s a gold mine of questions and considerations in many areas of writing. If you find yourself struggling with knowing how much or what to include in your stories, check out this book.
Choose the Right Words
Wordiness is another common problem resulting from not choosing the right details—in this case, not choosing the right words. Wordy passages slow the pace because the reader is having to process words that are redundant or unnecessary. Here are a few questions I find useful for finding and paring down these passages:
- When you read your work aloud (which is always a good idea), are there places you’re always stumbling over or having to re-read for clarity? Chances are, those could use some trimming or rephrasing.
- Are there words in a given sentence that can be cut without losing any meaning?
- How many adjectives do you have? Not every noun needs a describer. If they do, go for one strong one rather than two or three weak ones.
- Are your characters calling each other by name? Hello, Bob. Hi, Karen. What are you doing tonight, Bob? Oh, Karen, I’m glad you asked… When people talk to each other, they don’t typically use names unless they’re feeling emotional or need to make an important point. Drop those names from everyday dialogue.
- Are you describing unnecessary actions—aka, using play-by-play? She walked across the kitchen and dropped her dish in the sink. After pushing up her sleeves, she added some soap, turned on the water, and waited for it to get hot. All those unnecessary details slow the pace, making the passage too long and fairly boring. Readers know the usual process for washing dishes. They can fill in the blanks for themselves. To get rid of play-by-play, make a list of unnecessary action words you tend to overuse: turn, walk, move, pick up, set down, open, close, etc. Not all of them need to go, but many of them will, and getting rid of them will do wonders for your story’s pace.
Choosing the right details is hard for everyone.
HINT: If you struggle in this area, the show-don’t-tell descriptive thesaurus database we created at One Stop for Writers is worth checking out. (There’s a free trial, too.)
As you write, keep the suggestions above in mind. They will breathe life into your writing by keeping up the pace and making it easy for your readers to breeze right through to the very last page.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
my brain wants, both, to dive in headfirst with unnecessary play-by-play details, and also make the decisions of which details are irrelevant, all at the same time.
i should probably do a very kitchen-sink approach to this, then pare back.
Mary Ann Slavcheff (M.A. De Neve) says
Also mark “ing” verbs. “She was working” becomes -“She worked.” “The boy was playing” works better as “the boy played.” There are hundreds of little tips like this that can make writing so much better.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Yep! So many things we can do to tighten the writing!
You ladies never cease to amaze me. Is there ANYthing you don’t know about writing? lol 😀
BECCA PUGLISI says
The list is soon long, lol
Erika Hayes says
I love this article. I especially agree with the “on the nose” writing. I try to make sure I don’t even waste time writing it, to begin with. I think it is about respecting the reader. They know you have to push a button in the elevator to get to the floor you want. HAHA. I think from all the classes and books I’ve read learning to trim is hard but very necessary. I have the Self Edit book and couldn’t agree more it is fantastic.
BECCA PUGLISI says
The play-by-play is a natural default, I think—wanting to make sure the reader is clear about what’s happening. It’s just a matter of learning to recognize it and trim it out. 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I think this is one of the areas that trips all writers up at some point–we all know description is gold, but how do we decide which details to describe, and how best can we frame them? Your house/character example is a great example of how layering our description and making it do more can be really powerful…and trim word count!
julie brown says
Perfect timing on this post as I’m struggling to pinpoint the right details (and get rid of the unnecessary ones) in my WIP. On a somewhat unrelated note, just want to confirm that you sent the email asking us to verify subscriptions to the newsletter. Is this a mailchimp requirement? I definitely want to KEEP FOLLOWING YOU!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Yes Julie, that’s because of the GDPR stuff: https://jamigold.com/2018/05/the-new-eu-law-what-all-authors-need-to-know-guest-kharma-kelley/ All websites that have newsletter type lists need to ask their existing users to re-subscribe (or update their details to give consent to use their email address) to continue sending the newsletter. You’ll likely see more of these notices. Technically we only have to send this our to people from the EU, but honestly we believe all people should have their personal data protected, and so it was a good time to ask everyone if they wanted to continue getting our newsletter. We’ve made a few changes to increase security, because we want to make sure any data we have (mainly names and email addresses) is 100% safe.
BECCA PUGLISI says
There’s so much information we could include; it’s hard to know what to add and what to leave out. I’m glad the post is coming in handy :).
Great advice, thank you! 🙂