I have an issue to discuss with you. I have come to the realization that a lot of writers don’t seem to trust their readers. This is a travesty; this breaks my heart.
We writers sit at our laptops, typing feverishly (or scribbling feverishly in notebooks; whichever you prefer), trying desperately to get our messages across–to impart the big beautiful, terrifying, poignant stories which have taken over our brains to the brains of others via mere words (and sometimes pictures). And most of the time, if we are very into our story, and we have a decent command of the language in which we’re communicating, it works. It works because those who read our tales have imaginations, too. Because they know how to follow a story. Because this isn’t their first literary rodeo. Because they are readers. And yet, sometimes, the capacity of the readers brain–their cleverness, their willingness to learn and accept new things, their sheer intelligence–is forgotten.
As much as I am a writer, I am also an avid reader (as all writers should be). For our purposes here, I am putting on my reader’s hat. I enjoy a good story. I want to get lost in the settings and characters. When I open the cover and my eyes light on the first page, I want to feel inexorably pulled in and hungry to know more. However, when the author of a good yarn suddenly decides (to put it bluntly) that he or she thinks I, the reader, am stupid (or makes me suspect that possibly they are), it blows the whole thing. It’s like a theatrical record scratch, and everything in my head goes silent, and I am instantly thrown back out into reality and away from the story. A mood-killer, for sure.
This, unfortunately, tends to happen most often with indie authors, much like yours truly. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many fantastic indie authors who can run circles around some traditionally published writers. Being “independent” is no indication of whether or not one is a good writer. I think I only run into issues more in this world because there seems to be a lot of people who self-pub without getting a wide swath of opinion on the writing first. Why is that important? Because you need to hear it from more than just your friends whether or not the writing flows, and whether the readers are enjoying themselves. Because that’s what all this writing (especially fiction writing) is about: communicating with and immersing your readers.
You see, there is an unspoken contract between a writer and her readers. The reader agrees to suspend their disbelief, to look up a word occasionally if they run into something outside their immediate vocabulary, and to open their hearts and minds to what they are about to receive–to be ready and willing to love the imaginary world you set before them. Make it good, make us believe it, and we will go along with just about anything. The writer, on the other hand, agrees to trust their readers. This is very important. People who choose to pick up written words and use their imagination as a means of entertaining themselves (as opposed to, say, rollerblading or playing beer pong–not that I’m judging) are not stupid. Don’t treat them like they are. Want to turn a reader off? Assume that they are morons who can’t possibly hold onto important plot points for more than three pages, or that they won’t notice that your favorite word to describe blue eyes is “ocean” after you’ve used it five times in the same chapter. Give your readers a little credit. We are paying attention.
Now, before you accuse me of being preachy, believe me, I understand, we’re all human. We have all been guilty of over-explaining and latching onto pretty descriptions–exhaustively–a time or two. But, I am sending out a call to all fellow writers now to please, before you publish that next novel or short story, as you’re going over your final draft, think like a reader. Here are some tips which might help.
1. Stop Repeating Yourself
Okay, I understand, sometimes you need to reiterate a plot point to make sure your reader gets it, but don’t beat us over the head with it. This is the issue which spurred me to bring up this whole topic. I recently read a story (which shall remain nameless) which started off promising, had a ton of great writing and a fantastic story, but had a few… hiccups. The first of which happened early on, immediately after the main character had a conversation with a spooky old woman. Post-convo, as the MC is walking away from said spooky woman, the writer apparently deemed it necessary for the said MC to repeat the entire conversation in his head, point by point. Stop it. We just read this scene. Reiterating the whole thing is not going to do anything but make your reader exhausted and annoyed. I get it. You think it’s an important conversation for us to recall later in the book. But, I’m telling you, you’re doing it wrong. If we need to remember it, we can flip back to it later, when it comes up again. It’s good for us to have to work to retain this information. It feels more real, more challenging, and a challenge is not a bad thing. Suspense is not created by beating your readers over the heads with “this is a clue, this is important, this will come up later, don’t forget it!” Trust us. We will “get it” when we’re supposed to get it. Putting together those subtle (emphasis on the word subtle) clues at various ah-ha moments is part of the joy of reading. If you hold our hands too long, we’ll just want to break away. Just lay out the breadcrumbs without all the neon signs. We will follow, and we will feel so much cleverer if we believe we came to it on our own.
This may sound a lot like the first point, but what I am referring to here is language redundancy, not so much story redundancy. Redundancy in language–using the same descriptive word for something over and over again–is one of my greatest pet peeves. Anyone who knows me will tell you it’s true. I look for it in my own writing like a niffler looking for treasure (with nods to J. K. Rowling and my fellow Potter fans); I will leave no paragraph unplundered in my search for the overused adjective or adverb. There is no excuse for it, and I will not have it. Why? Because I don’t want to put my readers through that, no matter how in love I am with the word cerulean or how thrilled I am to have utilized the phrase, ‘like a niffler looking for treasure.’
Be creative, writers. And don’t assume your readers can’t see it when you use the same turns of phrase repeatedly. This is lazy writing. So, your character likes to kiss rough. Fine. But, seriously, how many times do we need to read how he “crushed her mouth” in one story? Once, that’s how many, and not a single instance more. If he “crushed his mouth against hers” in one scene, then that is all the mouth-crushing which needs to exist in the entire story.
You see, this is one of those novelty descriptions which sounds cool and makes the reader understand exactly what kind of kiss this is, but if you use it more than once, you’re going to annoy everyone in the room. It stands out. It grabs the reader’s attention because it is unique. But, when you overuse it, the uniqueness wears off. Once we get to the second mouth-crush, the first one pales. Now it’s trite, and we don’t care anymore. It really does happen that fast.
Use these great impactful phrases, these perfect descriptions, like rare and precious fruit. We get to taste it once, and savor it because we know just how perfect it is. And then we move on to something else, so as not to spoil the experience. How do you know if you’ve just used one of those phrases? If it dazzles you, if you’re proud of yourself, it is one of those rare-fruit phrases. Don’t go throwing it around like prolific blueberries, tucking it into everything, or nobody will respect it anymore.
In order to avoid this particular pitfall, challenge yourself. Not all kisses are the same. Your characters should kiss in all sorts of ways: softly, passionately, brushing her lips against his, kissing her fully on the mouth, a lingering kiss, a wet kiss, a forceful kiss, a kiss that stayed with him for days after, etc. There are a million ways to describe a kiss, and you really need to look into them. If you can’t be bothered to get creative with your writing–to try to keep things fresh and varied–then why are you writing in the first place?
3. Expand Your (and Our) Vocabulary
Now, this does not mean you need to salt your entire manuscript with 50 cent words. The language you use should reflect the style of your story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using simple language. There is even call for using bad grammar and slang dialogue, if that’s the voice of your character. But, you should have a larger vocabulary yourself, and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it. You see, your readers may not have Webster’s Dictionary in their heads, but they should be willing to pick one up on occasion, and if necessary.
There is a misconception among some writers that using a big or uncommon word for something is somehow showing off, or that readers ‘these days’ can’t be bothered to look something up, but that’s not always (or even usually) true. You see, the English language is a big, varied, fascinating tongue with a lot more descriptive potential than many of us give it credit. For the writer, his language is his palette. These are all the colors you have to choose from to paint your picture. Why limit it? Getting friendly with a good thesaurus, online or otherwise, will enrich your writing so much. It will help kill the redundancy, and can give more depth and meaning to your story. And your readers, if they are good readers, will come along with you, happy to soak up new bits of language they didn’t know before. Many of us have entire vocabularies built on what we read every day. It keeps us sharp. We’re counting on you to keep the language alive.
You, my writer friends, have been entrusted with something great. They are these fantastic alternate realities we call stories. They feel real inside the writer’s head; they need to feel real to the reader who absorbs them in word form. Trick us. Pull us in and make us forget we’re deciphering inked symbols on a page. Don’t bog us down; immerse us. Let our minds get stuck occasionally so that we have to run back a few pages to see what we missed. Challenge us. Delight us. Respect us. We will love and respect your writing all the more for it.