“Don’t explain it to death or it ceases to be magic.”
~Lev Grossman

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
~Anton Chekov

Today, a brief post on the most common problem I run across as a beta reader and editor: overwriting. We love what we write, and it’s difficult to kill our darlings, which is why so many of us, beginners and pros alike, explain too much.

The basic rule is, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal character, leave it out. You rarely—if ever—need a solid block of description, and there’s seldom any reason to layer adjectives. If you feel you must describe, try to adhere to the above rule and deliver your description through character or action.

That said, writing rules are made to be broken, and I’m as guilty as anyone of breaking this one. I love language, the way words fit and sound together. I’ve been known to add an unnecessary adjective just to create the right rhythm. That’s part of what makes my voice, my voice. Fortunately, I have a critique partner who keeps me from getting too far out of line, but that’s another post.

While it’s true info dumps aren’t as compelling as action, sometimes you need to share information that would be awkward if integrated into the story in bits and pieces.

And let’s not forget genre. One genre’s unnecessary minutiae may be another genre’s bread and butter. Extraneous physical descriptions of characters and food annoy the heck out of me, but readers of romance and cozy mysteries eat that stuff up (ha!).

The purpose of this post is not to tell you to follow the rules. That would be hypocritical at best. But while you’re writing, be aware of the difference between action, character, and static description.

  • Two women in a stolen vehicle trying to outrun the cops is action.
  • Two women in a stolen vehicle arguing about who’s responsible for their predicament while trying to outrun the cops is character development within the action.
  • That one of the women has freckles, and the other has blond hair, is neither character nor action.

If you’re unsure about a given scene, cut it to the bare bones, removing all description. Be honest with yourself (tough to do, we’re talking about our darlings here), and add back only what is necessary to tell your story.

How do you know how much description is too much?
Do you rely on instinct? CPs? Beta readers? Your editor?



Hope to see you all on Wednesday for IWSG!