Most serious writers learn early on how to avoid the basic missteps of good writing. Yet after years of serving in fiction workshops, swapping manuscripts with writers and working as a fiction editor in varying capacities, I’ve discovered that there is one deadly sin that often creeps its way into well-written manuscripts: Distrust.
Let’s assume that you understand when and where to use adverbs or why you should show instead of tell most of the time. If you’ve got those in the bag, you already understand the bare bones of effective writing.
Now it’s time to trust yourself – and your reader.
Jane fidgeted in the interrogation seat and pulled at a loose thread in her sweater. When the officer narrowed his eyes at her from across the table, she looked away and focused on the discolored tile in the corner, nervous of the look he was giving her. His glare filled the room. He was trying to intimidate her.
Pull it together, she thought.
She released the thread, straightened her back and sat still. Then she met his eyes with hers. She was scared, but trying not to show it.
Not bad, right? We’ve got lots of good showing – Jane can’t sit still and pulls at a loose thread. We’ve got some good descriptions – “fidgeted,” “narrowed,” “straightened.” But then we’ve got some phrases that deflate all that goodness. Three in particular:
- … nervous of the look he was giving her. After all that good showing, the writer doesn’t trust the writing enough to let it stand on its own. Thanks to the solid technique in the preceding sentences, readers already know she is nervous. We don’t need to be told.
- He was trying to intimidate her. This is obvious. His eyes are narrowing and his glare is filling the room. What else would he be trying to do?
- She was scared, but trying not to show it. We know. That’s why she straightened her back and released the thread. That’s why she met his eyes with hers.
I’ve read many well-written manuscripts with one deflator after another. It’s like someone who tells you a joke and then immediately scrambles to explain it, even though you got the punchline the first time. After a while you forget what the joke was even about. Even worse, you forget that it was funny.
What’s ironic is that less-skilled writers often trust themselves so much that they consider themselves impervious to criticism, while some of the most talented wordsmiths write great sentences that they don’t trust at all – and when you don’t trust yourself, you don’t trust your reader. And when you don’t trust your reader, you insult their intelligence. And when you insult their intelligence, they don’t want to read your story anymore.
Each sentence should pack a punch. Don’t turn your punches into pecks.
That said, I’ll leave you on a high note: In most cases, revising this pesky element of your MS is simple. It just requires DELETE.
Are you clarifying yourself too much in your MS? We are all guilty of it from time to time, just as we are all guilty of many other writing speed bumps. Hallelujah for the power of revision.