I’ve been reading and critiquing some unpublished chapters lately, and I’ve come across two common errors that many new writers make.
Telling too much
The first mistake is when the writer includes a lot of information that isn’t really necessary to the story. Sometimes this is backstory (I want to tell you all about this person and what brought him/her to this point), and sometimes it’s a description of a place or an event that the writer feels is important. This information about the character, a location, or an event may be well written. It may even be interesting. The question is, is it necessary?
Telling too little
The second mistake I’ve been seeing is when the writer doesn’t tell enough. Readers may not like long descriptions that take them out of the flow of the story, but they do like to picture what’s happening. In fact, today’s readers want to feel they are there, at least in part, which is one reason why stories written in the first person present tense have gained popularity (as opposed to the third person omniscient point-of-view or narrator pov that was so popular back in the early 1900s.)
How much is enough?
To be “in” the story, the reader does need some description of a place (location) and of the people (characters) who are involved. If a character is simply a “walk-on” who will not have an important role, then a simple descriptive noun may be enough: the policeman; the waitress; the secretary. But, if that secondary or tertiary character will be more than an in-and-out-of-the-scene character, a little more description may be necessary. For example: The potbellied policeman limped over to the car, or the teenage waitress dashed from table to table. A few extra words create a more visual image.
In another blog, I talked about painting with words. To say–She looked out at the lake as the sun set–tells me an action, but doesn’t create much of an image. To say–She stood on the cool sand and gazed westward as the sun slowly sank into the shimmering lake, turning the water shades of gold and orange–begins to create a picture.
The above description helps with what she’s seeing but it might still need to be expanded by adding more of the five senses (what she hears, smells, tastes). And what about the woman’s emotional response to what she’s seeing, her thoughts and/or memories? By adding to the description, the writer tells the reader not only where the character is, but why this location is important to the character.
On the other hand, to expand the scene with facts about the depth of the water—maybe this year it’s higher or lower than it has been in other years—how the lake was created by the glazier flow eons before, or how the city hires someone to rake the beach smooth every morning (unless that’s part of the plot), really wouldn’t be important in this scene. Yet, sometimes after writers have researched a location (or visited it), they want to convey all they’ve learned. It’s great to gain all of that information, and it will make the writing more realistic, but generally, less is better. Too many adverbs describing the beauty, or too many facts, can stop the story.
What the writer must constantly ask himself or herself is, “Is it necessary?” Does the reader need this information to understand the characters or the plot? Do I need to add more information so the reader will be able to see this scene as I am? Or, am I simply adding words (padding) in order to make a certain word count? If I have to cut words, what could I cut and not lose anything (other than words)?
As you do your final edits, keep asking yourself: Is that really necessary? If it isn’t, cut it.