Writers: Are You Trustworthy?


iStock / Mark Airs

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.

An example:

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:

  1. … 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

0 Replies to “Writers: Are You Trustworthy?”

  1. I read about this on Love YA and would love to win one of your critiques. I’m just in the process of final edits.
    As far as distrust goes, you are quite right. I’m very good at arguing with myself, but have learned quickly that it’s a tell tale sign to cut it out, quite literally….cut it out!
    Fingers Crossed!!

  2. Whoops…forgot. YA contemporary with a touch of mystical realism and south pacific mythology! Query will be posted on Jodi Meadows site this weekend if you’d like a look. Thanks!

  3. Hi Erin! Thanks for the great article and the great advice! I’d love to win one of your critiques, so here is my one-sentence pitch: When a mercenary targets her twin and ensnares him in a spell that drains his life-force, witch-in-training Andra must sacrifice everything to save her brother. My MS is a urban fantasy, by the way. Thanks!

  4. Hi Erin! Saw this on YA Love and had to check it out. Of course, the first thing that caught my eye was your name… which is almost *exactly* like my maiden name! (I had an extra E before the Y)!! Talk about awesome!

    So I thought I’d take a chance and put my name in for the contest. And I think I, too, am guilty of clarifying myself. Of course, I could be guilty of a lot of things… :)

  5. I saw this first on Love YA, and I just have to say that it’s a really helpful post! I know that I do that all the time, so I really appreciate the pointers for ‘trusting’ myself. My delete key is going to get used fairly often over the next while. :)

    To help with this, I would LOVE to win the chapter critique. My current project is a YA dystopia thriller set in a world where the North American Union is at war with the European Alliance. The NAU hasn’t lost a battle yet, thanks to sixteen-year-old Astrid, who pre-fights all the battles in a complex mental simulation known as The Web.

  6. Hi Erin,
    This article is great for someone like myself. I consider myself in the learning phase of writing. I love it when I find a great tidbit of information. This is one more tool to add to the tool box. I like how you show what you mean. I will now sift through your blog to see if I can find more useful information. I love to hear an editor’s POV on writing. I am just starting my second draft on my baby, these are the things that are incredibly (adverb) helpful. I hope I find more. :^}

    It would be fantastic to get picked for a critique. I think it would help the entire process for the rest of my MS.

    No YA here. My MS is a Romantic / Suspense: heavy on the suspense. I have a very strong Female MC, her voice rocks. It’s an action packed saga of an unconventional family’s struggle for survival after an apocalyptic event. It’s got a great government corruption twist.

    Oh, and keep up the great editorial comments! I’ll be watching whether you pick me or not!

  7. LOL! sound excited about your name, forgot to tell you what I’m working on. It’s a YA paranormal/fantasy-ish novel about a 15yo girl who meets a boy from another planet and ultimately has to save the universe. :)

  8. It looks like you have Monica to thank for sending a bunch of us over here!

    This post really struck a chord with me, because I tend to be on the end of the scale that prefers not to tell the reader what to feel (or lead them by showing too forcefully either). But based on some of my crit partners remarks, sometimes I go too far and they lose connection.

    So in my revisions on my first book, all the spots where they pointed those disconnects out, I ended up with a lot of “I felt shame at his accusation.” or something that was just as bad. In my next round, I’m going to have to address those. The good news is, that as I’m working on my second book, I’m getting better at not including that kind of thing in the first place.

    I’d love a first chapter crit on my new book, to see how I’m doing. Crow’s Rest is a young adult contemporary fantasy with the edgy humor of an Adam Rex book, and the dark fantasy feel of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series.

    Thanks for the post, and for offering up your time!

  9. Hi, Great advice – hard to know what you’re (me – the writer) up to sometimes!
    For the crit:
    Contemporary fiction about a women who loses her memory and has to discover who she is again – with no ID, family or anyone who knows her….

  10. What a great article! And definately the sort of advice I need. I can already think of a few places right off the bat where I do this in my MS.

    I’d love to win a chapter critique for my second novel/WIP. It’s a YA Fantasy about a tree-mage girl who must escape the castle dungeon and break a demon’s spell, even if it means losing her true love.

  11. What a great post, Erin.

    Although, I’m not sure I agree with you that the revision for this is simple. For starters, to use the delete button wisely, you have to know what needs to go and what should stay.

    I guess it’s a matter of confidence, in yourself, and your skill as a writer. And, of course, practice, practice, practice. ;-)

    As a writer sadly lacking in both of the above, I would love the chance to have you crit my first chapter. I have edited it until I’m cross-eyed. It would be great to get some fresh insight.

    My book is in the mystery/suspense genre, with a strong female protagonist and a dark, psychological edge. Here’s my one sentence pitch:

    Firefighter Jo Wood’s life stopped the day her husband and child died, discovering they were murdered just kick-started it again.

    Thanks again for the opportunity.

  12. Great reminder. This is such a tough skill to acquire, though, because you can leave too much unsaid, too (although that’s a much rarer problem).

    I’d love to win a first-chapter critique! My WIP is YA science fiction about a girl who wants to take over the company responsible for her mother’s death, a boy who wants to get rid of the voices in his head, and a piece of futuristic technology called a Wingtooth that makes them both more different and more similar than they ever would have guessed.

    I’m just finishing up a round of revisions that several agents requested, and I’m most worried about the first chapter. I’m afraid I’m telling and not showing enough in an attempt to build the world. I could use a pair of unbiased eyes.

    Thanks, Kelly and Monica!

  13. I’m definitely guilty of this! I’ve caught so many of these instances in revisions.

    I’d love to enter for a critique. My YA is a contemporary fantasy about a dying 16-year-old who starts seeing Hayden, her dead ex-boyfriend. At first, Riley’s positive Hayden’s a hallucination, but when it turns out he’s real, she falls for him all over again. Problem is, he can’t follow her into the afterlife. If Riley can’t let go, there’s more at risk than matters of life and death…like Hayden’s soul.

  14. This is such a great post. I’m definitely guilty of overexplaining — it’s a compulsion that I’ve tried to curb. :)

    And it’s lovely of you to offer critiques. Mine is a futuristic YA about a girl who travels back in time to a year before her parents’ murder, only to run into their murderer — the very same boy whom she killed.

  15. I seriously struggle with distrusting my writing and sometimes the adjectives and adverbs creep back in when I’m struggling with the mojo. I’ll keep your article in my research folder and refer to it often. I would love to win a critique for one of my first chapters. I discovered you also on Love YA.

  16. Wow! I gotta say this is an excellent post and spot on advice. Very true and very enlightening. Thank you for the help.
    I’d love a critique. I’ve actually finished a MS that’s already been through a rewrite of the first chapter and I’m trying to get a feel for how the rewrite is working. It’s a MG contemporary fantasy and is a basic re-imagining of the epic poem, Beowulf, in middle grade. Thanks, Erin.

  17. Wonderful post. The first thing I thought of while reading it was Elmore Leonard’s great quote: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

    I’d love to be considered for the chapter critique. I’m working on a contemporary YA. Here’s my one-paragraph pitch. Baseball and Annie Buck are the two good things in Nick Carrey’s otherwise lousy life: Nick, almost fifteen, lost his mother and much-older brother ten years ago, and his alcoholic, abusive father treats him more like a slave than a son. Just as the abuse starts to escalate, Nick finds old photos and a book while cleaning the garage, and it is then he discovers he isn’t who he thinks he is, his name isn’t even his name, and mystery surrounds the loss of his mother and brother. When he also realizes someone is watching him, the riddle of who he is becomes deeper still.

  18. Thanks for the advice! I think we get so close to our novels sometimes that we can’t see the obvious until a post like this comes along and makes us go: Oh yeah!

    Here’s a synopsis for my YA paranormal:
    Sixteen-year-old Nora Greene knows the value of personal space all thanks to her ability to see people’s thoughts just by touching them. And being thrust into the overactive imaginations of her often horny and horror-movie-obsessed classmates gets old fast. As if seeing other’s sick fantasies isn’t bad enough, she has to deal with the massive headaches and occasional blackouts that seem to be a part of the gig. That’s why she’s been keeping to herself since kindergarten.

    That changes when she’s forced to take part in a group play in class, and Adrian Lockhart leans his knee against hers. She sees a vision of a school shooting in his head and has to know if this is an errant thought—or a plan. To find out, she volunteers to play his character’s love interest, but after spending time together practicing she falls for his laidback attitude and killer smile. Just when she starts to question her involvement with Adrian, he makes a confession that changes everything. Nora’s relieved to know that she’s got him all wrong, but now they’ve got to find the true identity of the potential gunman before it’s too late—and people get hurt.

    Thanks so much for the opportunity!

  19. Wow! Thanks so much for the crit opportunity! Here’s a query description of my WIP. It’s a YA paranormal romance.

    Being a siren isn’t always easy, but Coral figures she can at least follow two simple rules. Why shouldn’t she when they’ve always kept her safe from the human world she hides in? Until she meets Jackson, that is. One perfectly gorgeous guy that catches her in his net like no other boy has before.

    One secret is about to change both their lives. Coral tries to keep her siren nature hidden, switching her tail for legs and swimming less often. Except, keeping it a secret isn’t exactly easy; whenever Jackson is around, Coral feels an unending desire to sing to him. No one’s ever told her if her song really kills, but she’s always assumed the stories of men lured to their deaths were true. And drowning her boyfriend is definitely not on her to-do list.
    Faced with two options, Coral has a decision to make that will affect more than just her life. She can run and hide or search for the truth about her song. Running means forgetting about love, but finding the truth could expose her secret and destroy everything—especially Jackson.


  20. Great post, Erin! I have caught myself doing this a few times lately as I read through my latest draft. Sometimes I think I do it as much for me as the reader so I can remember later what I was trying to do with the scene. Perhaps I need to make better use of sticky notes (or Scrivener!).

    I would love to win a first chapter critique. My WIP is an MG adventure about a boy named Jonas who lives in The Gallery of Important Things, a secret museum his family has been guarding for thousands of years. When his evil uncle comes looking for a powerful artifact Jonas must find a way to stop him while fighting off zombie thugs, evading killer crows and figuring out if he can trust the secret ninja army in his basement.


  21. I saw your post on Love Ya and had to laugh. I have a gift for pointing out the obvious in my writing, so your comments rang true.

    I would love to win one of your critiques. Here is my query.

    Louisa Ramirez is immortal, forever nineteen and living in Jazz Age Miami. Some would consider it paradise, but for Louisa, it is more like paradise lost. Centuries have passed since her galleon washed up on these shores. She has seen too many loved ones grow old and die, and is tired of being a custodian to their memories. When Louisa falls in love with Anastasia, she is determined to free herself from her immortality, and live a single lifetime with the woman she loves.
    Louisa would gladly sacrifice her immortality, but her life is not hers to give. She is bound to the nymph who once guarded the Fountain of Youth, and only she can release Louisa. In order to live a mortal life, Louisa must find the nymph, and return her to the Fountains’ waters. Standing in her way is Miami’s other immortal citizen, Juan Ponce De Leon. He has claimed the Fountain, and he will not relinquish his prize without a fight.

  22. Great post! :) Even greater opportunity!

    Here’s a little blurb for my latest WIP, an adult thriller…

    A homicide detective, who found his fourteen-year-old sister dead on her bedroom floor twelve years ago, finds solace in his work even though it exacerbates the often violent flare ups of his wife’s PTSD. On a case that opens old wounds, he still believes his sister’s death was a suicide, cut-and-dry. After all, it’s what his parents told him.

    But it’s not true.

  23. A first chapter critique would be sublime.

    My manuscript is a YA fantasy, influenced by Doctor Who and Quantum Leap. A boy from Brooklyn meets a woman who has the power to travel to different universes, and together they traverse worlds both mundane and bizarre.

  24. Hello! *waves* I followed you here from Love Ya as well. I’m always open to critiques and would love your opinion.

    I have a finished YA Fantasy about a girl who must fight to win her place in a fabled Knights Academy, and a new WIP about a girl who is stuck in a love triangle while receiving glimpses of the future in her dreams.

    Thanks for hosting this!

  25. Yes! Reading other WIPs is one of my favorite things too :) I’m working on a YA set in the future (I hesitate to call it dystopian). In a society that believes humans are gods, a shy teen exploited by the government discovers the awful charade by which writers seem to create portals to other worlds.

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