1. DeathandGrim
    Offline

    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 28, 2012
    Messages:
    540
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    Virginia Beach

    Style Don't trust my reader?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by DeathandGrim, Jun 11, 2014.

    I'm having a recurring problem with my projects in which I tend to be a fine craftsman. I want to describe things down to the finest detail and construct things to my exact vision. I'm wondering if this is due to my chronic tendency to be a perfectionist or that I don't think very highly of my readers. In High school many of my peers weren't able to grasp even the simplest of similes, scenarios, references, metaphors, etc. so I had to dumb it down or go into excessive detail so they wouldn't get lost.

    Fast forward to now about 5 years outta HS and I still think maybe my readers are dense. It's not on purpose I promise, but I come from a background where I was hailed as incredibly smart (which is odd because I'm slightly above average, just creative) but people have caught up finally at least to my base mind. How do I stop though? While I'm writing I literally have the thought "I really wanna hammer this point home" about 70% of the time.

    I'm still struggling to understand the whole concept of less is more in writing.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,963
    Likes Received:
    5,487
    I have a tendency to explain something, and then explain it in another way, and then offer a few analogies, and then explain it again.

    Then I cut ninety percent of it, sigh, and move on to the next point.

    But I can't really tell you which ninety percent to cut. If you post to the review room, maybe you could make a point of asking if you're over-explaining? Because that's the kind of detail that a reviewer might decide not to raise, because it can be hard to explain.

    Edited to add: Another thought could be to make a game of rewriting a piece with a specific word "budget"--say, for every ten sentences in the original, you get two. For example, I just ran off to look at Gabriel Chapter 1, and if I were to rewrite the first paragraph in a two-sentence "budget" my first draft would be:

    Eighty-seven years of battling monsters makes for a bad night's sleep, and not just because of the aches and pains. It's the memories that are the worst--memories of things that most people would call myths.

    I'm not saying that it's a good compression, but you see roughly what I mean?
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2014
  3. DeathandGrim
    Offline

    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 28, 2012
    Messages:
    540
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    Virginia Beach
    Oh I've posted plenty in the review section and this concern gets raised consistently
     
  4. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,963
    Likes Received:
    5,487
    Just in case you don't see it - I went back and edited my post with another possible suggestion.
     
  5. Chaos Inc.
    Offline

    Chaos Inc. Active Member

    Joined:
    May 27, 2014
    Messages:
    180
    Likes Received:
    47
    Location:
    Acolasia
    Our brains are designed to naturally fill in the blanks. While reading seems like a focused activity, my mind wanders around while I continue to read. It's not on things like when's the last time I washed the car, but details about what I'm reading on the page. Because this is how my brain works, my writing reflects this as well.

    I see it as "I've got a story to tell" not a "schematic to write". I would put some trust in the readers ability to fill in details. How often do you hear people say the book was better? I happen to believe it's because their imagination will always be move vivid than what the author intended.

    Blah blah blah.
     
    xanadu and matwoolf like this.
  6. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    It sounds to me that your perfectionism has a wider scope than just your writing. Your attitude that you worry about the readers being 'dense' is just a rationalisation for your inability to curb your over-explaining and labouring the point. But it's addressing the latter that will actually help.

    Besides, you know already that there are millions of readers perfectly capable of understanding all kinds of narratives, or all these great writers would have no audience, let alone bestselling careers and superstar status.

    ChickenFreak's suggestion is fantastic. That sentence is really good, and if you can condense your meandering storytelling in this way, you can end up with a very well written story.
     
  7. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    In my opinion this was a big mistake. Once you start dumbing things down, your work will suffer because 1) you'll begin to lose interest and 2) some things are inherently complex. I'm a firm believer that writers should be writing for like-minded readers, so that's something to consider.

    Perhaps your writing is hard to understand sometimes, but I think you should also consider getting the opinions of more informed readers.
     
  8. TWErvin2
    Offline

    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 30, 2006
    Messages:
    2,528
    Likes Received:
    561
    Location:
    Ohio, USA
    Consider, when you write, your story (novel) in a way becomes the reader's novel.

    Trying to completely control what the reader thinks, understands, takes away from your prose, providing extensive detail (for example) is going to weaken the story rather than strengthen it. Can an author's words put down on paper match a reader's imagination? A reader's ability to paint a picture of the characters, setting, and action? Probably not. An author can spark that imagination and picturing the characters and action in their mind's eye, but can't paint it down to every detail, including complete understanding of character motivations, voice and more.

    Are you writing to the right audience? If you are targeting the right audience--say, avid readers of epic fantasy and you're writing epic fantasy, and they're 'not getting' it (what you write), then maybe it's the writing that needs adjusting.

    To illustrate: Readers of formula romance are going to be lost when reading hard science fiction, not necessarily due to lack of intellect, but simply lack of background coupled with lack of interest--and vise versa.
     
    minstrel and jannert like this.
  9. Commandante Lemming
    Offline

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2014
    Messages:
    1,241
    Likes Received:
    1,000
    Maybe a solution is to go through and figure out what details are actually IMPORTANT and focus on those. You have to respect your readers, but the key is to understand that they will never see your vision the exact way you see it. I would pay money to see how my readers picture my characters...might even find some insight there...but unfortunately mind-reading tech is still a few years off .

    However, I'm, guessing you have a lot of detail that doesn't move the story. In that case, it doesn't matter if your reader thinks the walls of the gas station are yellow when you think they are white. They are never going to see your world - your job is to make their mind paint their own world that communicates what you're trying to get at.
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2014
    KaTrian, jannert and xanadu like this.
  10. xanadu
    Offline

    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 21, 2008
    Messages:
    552
    Likes Received:
    407
    Location:
    Cave of Ice
    This is an important point to consider. Detail for the sake of detail is only going to clutter things. If the detail doesn't matter to the character--to the players involved--then it doesn't matter to the reader. Details, just like any other word on the page, need to carry their own weight. They need to contribute, either to atmosphere, plot, characterization, etc. On top of that, if the goal is to present the world through the eyes of the character, then what the world objectively looks like really doesn't matter. What matters is how the characters view the world.

    I've found, in editing my own work, that I need far less detail than what I initially put on the page. I find this to be true consistently in many of the pieces I review, as well, and as I write more I'm learning just how little I need to include to get the idea across. It's a learning curve. You just need to reign in the desire to overexplain (easier said than done) and be merciless with the editing machete.

    That said, there's a time and a place for everything, including heavy detail. Consider the context of the scene--if the POV is from a sniper diligently watching an enemy camp, he/she is naturally going to observe a lot of detail. Much more so than a criminal running from the cops. But also think about what kind of details are relevant to each situation. You don't need to show the entire world--just what's important in the context of each scene. And don't forget, there's tension and suspense in mystery.

    The reader's imagination is a powerful tool--don't take it out of the toolbox.
     
    KaTrian and jannert like this.
  11. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    In this example, detail can do even more than get inside the character's head. Detail in this instance can add to the building tension. Every detail noticed by the character can mean a possible complication - and that possibility adds to the reader's wondering what's actually going to happen.

    Detail just to try and force the reader to follow a particular path of imagination is pointless (the readers will just start skimming). Detail because you think your readers are dumb is arrogant (and those dumb readers will pick up on it). Detail to serve the story - that's part of the art.
     
    jannert and xanadu like this.
  12. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,824
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    Never lower standards to what you think the reader might or might not understand. Check out Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows - a sophisticated but wonderful read for children and adults alike -
    Imagine if he just wrote - Toad could smell the delicious toast.

    I like to keep details in the context of content, tone & character. If it's distracting from the high energy tone I'm trying to create I can trim. If it doesn't help to convey character it can be axed. If it's not important to the context of the scene it can be ditched. Even if you go through the Toad example - all the sentences can be kept because they have content, they shape Toad's character ( we know that Toad is hungry and loves nice things ), and it's languid sensuality creates a marvelous tone.

    BTW I love Chickenfreaks idea of a word budget. Go by sight as well not just in the word context but in the blurry block of a paragraph. I tend to forget when I write just how huge a paragraph I can create.
     
  13. Chaos Inc.
    Offline

    Chaos Inc. Active Member

    Joined:
    May 27, 2014
    Messages:
    180
    Likes Received:
    47
    Location:
    Acolasia
    Write for you first. Worry about your reader getting it when you're trying to make a buck.
     
    peachalulu likes this.
  14. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    If my reader isn't getting it, it doesn't matter if I'm trying to make a buck or not. I've failed.
     
    Andrae Smith and jannert like this.
  15. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,783
    Likes Received:
    7,298
    Location:
    Scotland
    This is one of the reasons I bang on about the importance of beta readers. If one beta reader doesn't 'get it,' but 10 others do, you are probably doing okay.

    Everybody reads differently, looking for different things. It's important to get overview from as many people as you can before deciding what to keep and what to cut. You can alter your writing slightly, so number 11 finally gets on board, but I wouldn't over-stress if the majority of your readers have no problem, or even enjoy, what you've written.

    All you have to do is read other threads on this forum to realise how people disagree about published books, and which ones are favourites and which ones they hate. Some people like wordy, dense writing, some people like the minimalist, non-detailed stuff instead. Some people like flowery prose. Some people hate flowery prose. Some people love zombie stories. Some people find them unreadable. The opinions vary wildly. Some people's favourites are other people's 'most hated.' It's just the way people are.

    There is no reason to expect everybody is going to love what you write. Just as long as everybody doesn't hate what you write, or dismiss what you write as unreadable or ungrammatical, then you have a readership base to draw from. Aim at pleasing that group of people, and don't worry too much about everybody else.

    If the consensus of opinion from most people (who are being objective) is that they 'don't get it,' or that you're boring them rigid with unnecessary detail, then you should address the issue. If nobody likes your stuff at all, then you definitely have a major problem.

    By the way, some readers (like me) absolutely love to read detail in a novel. @peachalulu 's example pretty much sums it up for me. I love that kind of writing! Buttery toast. Yum. I could happily devour some now. (Dang ...I'm out of bread...:()
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
  16. Selbbin
    Online

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2012
    Messages:
    3,226
    Likes Received:
    1,799
    Location:
    Australia
    You can't please everyone. If you explain everything, your sophisticated readers will be bored and annoyed. If you make it vague and rely on your reader, the simplistic readers will get confused and annoyed.

    Write your way and let the readership figure out if they 'get it' or not.
     
    peachalulu likes this.
  17. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    The problem I see with this - and similarly with the "write for yourself" - is that too often writers start to think they are "speshul" and readers who don't get it are dumb. The reality, too often, is that they just aren't very good writers.

    Writers should want to communicate, and communicate clearly. If they don't care about the reader, if they write for themselves and ignore the reader, then what happens to that communication? It becomes a matter of chance? Toss out the words and hope someone gets it? Or that someone's "smart enough" to see what you're saying?

    Nothing wrong with writing your story - but I think a writer should be able to do so in a way that more than a handful will "get it".
     
    peachalulu likes this.
  18. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    I think others have covered this very well, with some great responses coming from @ChickenFreak, @peachalulu, and @jannert. Just to add a little, some of the best advice I ever got on the subject is to realize what you're trying to say, then "say it once, say it well, and move on." One method that helps with this is literally to find the packet of information you are trying to convey, put it in it's simplest, cleanest form, and then move on. You can worry about style in revision as you grow your sentences, move them around, and delete things. This method is focused on helping you control the flow of information. The better you get at it, the less consciously you have to go through this. It is an easy one to skip and one that isn't always necessary or best. It's just a suggestion.

    If you don't want to start this way, then you should pay close attention in the editing process. Some of the best editing advice I've received is to cut everything that's redundant. If it's aid more than once without adding anything new or valuable, it's usually not worth keeping. If you want your story to move, then you have to let your sentences be steps to carry the readers forward.

    Speaking of, you can trust most readers to understand your points because a lot of things can be implied if the writing flows in the right (usually logical) progression or has the right timing. As a reader, I personally enjoy detail expanding on ideas, making them richer, mining deep to extract the finest nuggets of meaning, but I tend to skim sentences (and sections) that don't give me more than a new way to look at the same info. Sometimes that is enough, but often I expect the next sentence to lead me toward something new or something new yet related to the previous one.

    Over explaining is a common mistake, but one that can be overcome by 1. reading more good fiction, 2. learning to write concisely and 3. being a scrupulous editor. It's all about how you manipulate the flow of information. Hope this helps some. :)
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
    Catrin Lewis, peachalulu and jannert like this.
  19. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,783
    Likes Received:
    7,298
    Location:
    Scotland
    I think added to this is the idea of reader immersion.

    The more absorbed your reader gets, the more detail this reader can assimilate. If your character is excited about details, if the details matter to the character—and your reader identifies with the character—the reader will be excited too.

    It takes longer if you present 'detail' through the eyes and heart of your characters, but readers won't mind, and probably won't even notice. It's a good trick, and well worth using.
     
    Andrae Smith and xanadu like this.
  20. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,564
    Likes Received:
    3,561
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    Sounds like you're over-directing. In cinema you can decide what is shown and visible on the screen, but in writing, the reader creates an image that is going to be different from yours, no matter what. We also put pieces together differently, understand characters based on our own understanding of people etc. etc.

    Test this. If a person you know is also very smart, reads widely, and has a degree in literary theory, creative writing, or English lit still fails to understand your writing or just doesn't get it, maybe it's time to ask yourself whether the fault is yours, whether you are unable to express yourself in a way skilled writers can? It's possible to be both humble and ambitious, yeah?

    If they get it, it's possible your target audience is not your average jane or joe. However, for example my parents are not well educated, not particularly smart or have high IQs, don't know anything about literary devices, but they read fiction written by intellectuals whose works are filled with complicated imagery, original similes, symbolism etc. and still enjoy them, still "get" them, and that's because those writers have been able to write in a way that reaches folks from all walks of life with all kinds of backgrounds. Not saying that's always possible or even necessary, but

    Don't dumb it down, but learn to express yourself in multiple ways. Get as many beta readers as possible (like @jannert suggested, I know I've benefitted from this and learned that often the fault is mine, not the reader's), and analyze the art of writing. And learn to let go. It's going to make the whole writing process more fun. :)


    But wouldn't you be doomed to constant failure? Have you ever discussed a novel with someone and realized you didn't get it the way the author intended it, but maybe you got it (understood, interpreted) it in some other, equally valid way? I wouldn't consider it a failure as such. I guess e.g. in Bret Easton Ellis's case it was probably a success to him that so many people got the American Psycho wrong. :D
     
    jannert likes this.
  21. xanadu
    Offline

    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 21, 2008
    Messages:
    552
    Likes Received:
    407
    Location:
    Cave of Ice
    This about sums it up, I think. Draw the reader in by making the character react to the environment around her or him. Make the character's problems be the reader's problems and the character's interests be the reader's interests. The details will feel only natural, however dense or sparse, because it will come from a character with whom the reader is deeply engaged.
     
  22. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    If I were to discuss a novel with the author, I might possiblly realize I got it wrong. Discussing it with anyone else? Different interpretations. But if a significant number of readers is totally missing the point, then the author failed.

    Writers should understand that different people will see things differently. But if the overall idea is missed, if I have to explain things outside the book for people to get the point, then yes, I've failed. I've never read American Psycho but if it were misinterpreted by the majority of readers, then yes, it's the fault of the author. Sometimes it works out (the readers like their interpretation better and the book does well); sometimes it doesn't and the book falls off into the netherworld. And sometimes it's a bunch of "literary folk" who like to imagine meanings in books that could only be found through as rich an imagination as an author of fantasy.
     
  23. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    That's definitely a great way to go about it, an important way now that I think about it. I mean, it provides characterization and world building, and it's a great way to give meaning to the details, in a sense--that is it helps you tighten the focus to details that should matter, that would come up more naturally. I mean, I probably wouldn't notice a moth on the wall if I were sitting tied to a chair with a gun to my head. I might notice how a certain smell keeps distracting me or something.

    Good point.
     
  24. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    To paraphrase Lionel Trilling, we can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done; he can only say what he meant to do, and even then we don't have to believe him.
     
    jannert and Andrae Smith like this.
  25. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,783
    Likes Received:
    7,298
    Location:
    Scotland
    I really like that! Thanks for posting it...
     

Share This Page