So, you want to be a better writer.
Every writer does, right?
Even bestselling authors can be dissatisfied with their writing skills and want to be better writers.
If we have the right mindset, we’ll constantly work to improve some aspects of our writing craft and grow better at it.
I thought I was a decent writer a decade ago, before I earned degrees in English and Creative Writing, before I had edited hundreds of manuscripts. Before I wrote thousands of blog posts.
I might have been a good writer then …
… but there was so much I didn’t know.
There is still so much I don’t know, and it’s healthy to have the perspective where you always want to be a better writer.
You Write Better When You Trust Your Reader
One important aspect of writing better fiction involves trusting your reader more.
In my editing work, and as a beta reader of many novels, I spot this problem a lot.
It’s a common concern of a newer author that their reader might not understand what they are trying to say, so they end up overexplaining rather than trusting the reader.
Growing into a better writer involves trusting your readers in a few specific areas:
Trust Your Reader to “Get” Your Character
You don’t have to provide extensive backstory for every character.
New writers commit this blunder often, thinking they have to explain every little bit of back story about their character (whether it’s relevant to the story or not).
It’s hard not to do.
Looking back at some stories I began writing in my teens, I can clearly see I made that mistake. I would start a story moving forward, and then break the narrative by offering back story or an explanation of the character’s past.
When there’s a sudden break in the forward movement of a story, if not artfully and intentionally crafted, this draws the reader out of the story.
And if it’s not vital to the current story, it’s better to trust that your reader will get the character without knowing everything about their history.
Tim Shoemaker, author of the Code of Silence series, introduced this idea to me in a writer’s workshop I attended several years ago.
He also crafted this concept very well in his middle-grade books. One of the main characters in Code of Silence has a back story regarding her father being killed in the line of duty. This is never actually stated, and the author doesn’t delve into backstory to explain the whole situation.
Instead, he refers to it in small but meaningful ways.
If I had tried writing a story like that 20 years ago, I probably would have broken the flow of the narrative to insert backstory of some kind—a memory or explanation of what happened to her father and why this is important to her, et cetera …
But that wouldn’t have made it a better story.
And it wouldn’t have shown that I trust the reader to figure things out, to grasp the character’s history by offering meaningful details rather than a dull and overdone backstory.
Also, there is a time to provide back story, and it’s usually later in the book than you as a writer might initially be comfortable with.
Think of the Harry Potter series.
What if J. K. Rowling had given the back story at the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Stone as to why Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and what he was after in that house in Godric’s Hollow?
It might not have completely ruined the story, but it was far better for that to remain a mystery until well into the series; it made the reveal that much more powerful and meaningful.
So, be aware of why and when you’re providing back story. When in doubt, wait. It’s okay for the reader to bear with a bit of suspense …
Readers actually enjoy it.
Trust Your Reader to Read between the Lines
If you are looking for ways to be a better writer, become hyperaware of information dumps.
This is another common writing mistake that not only novice writers make but even established writers, if they’re not cognizant of how clunky it can look.
A few years back, I was perpetually on the lookout for good books for my daughter, as she could read several books in a single setting.
So one autumn, wheeling toward Christmas, I found a series that had well over a dozen books. I read a couple of positive reviews and went ahead and ordered the first trilogy. My daughter would have enough good reading material to keep her busy for at least a few days.
Before wrapping the book for Christmas, I began reading just to see what it was like. I couldn’t get more than a few chapters in. I was horrified to find information dumps all over the place.
An information dump is when the author provides a large amount of information at one time.
For instance, two characters are talking to each other. Let’s say these characters are husband and wife, so they know a lot about each other.
And then on the second page of chapter one, the wife monologues to the husband:
“I know you have been struggling with back issues from the time you were 17 and you had that terrible motorcycle accident when the doctors thought you would never walk again but you refused to give up and fought for every step.”
This is an information dump. There is no context in which a couple would actually offer an overview of the information they already held among themselves. It sounds awkward because a conversation like that wouldn’t happen in real life.
But for some reason, the writer finds it the best way to get that information to the reader.
Now, this might be laziness on the part of the writer because they didn’t put forth the effort of finding a creative way to convey that information.
But it can also be a failure to trust the reader to pick up on the important information and context without it being spoon-fed…
Actually, not spoon-fed; more like a dump-truck load poured on.
In any case, information dumps in a conversation between characters make the entire dialogue awkward and false.
And sometimes information dumps aren’t even given with dialogue but full paragraphs of extraneous information, which comes across as even more clunky.
You don’t have to spell everything out.
Trust your readers.
You will be a better writer if you refuse to overexplain. Don’t tell them everything.
Let your readers come to conclusions and realizations on their own.
Trust Your Reader to “See” What You’ve Shown
You don’t have to tell if you have already shown a scene.
I often read middle-grade novels; I’m always on the lookout for good books to recommend to young readers.
And when done well, middle-grade novels can be entertaining for all ages. (More about that in my next blog post on writing stories for young people.)
I was reading the first book in a series of fairly popular books written for youth and I had a really difficult time engaging with the story. Just couldn’t get into it. I kept finding myself being pulled out of the narrative and it took me a while to figure out why that was.
Then I finally realized the problem. The author would show something through description and dialogue and imagery but then he would also tell that same thing.
If you’ve been writing fiction for any length of time, you know the mantra …
“Show don’t tell.”
There is a time for telling but too much telling is a clear indication of an inexperienced writer …
And it makes for lousy reading.
This writer knew how to show and did it quite well, but for some reason didn’t trust his young readers enough; he felt that he needed to tell what he had just shown.
This was not a conscious decision the writer made, I’m certain of it.
But he could have used a beta reader to catch that and help him become a better writer by saying this very thing:
If you’ve already shown a scene, trust your reader to grasp it. You don’t have to tell it as well.
Trust Your Reader with Gentle Foreshadowing
And lastly, for the love of all things good in literature, do not ever use the phrase “Little did they know…” or “He was going to soon find out …”
These diversions from the story only pull your reader out of the narrative.
They do not serve any purpose and come across as clunky and trying too hard.
If you want to add some tension, some suspense, great! But adding “Little did he know …” is not the way to do it.
It’s the literary equivalent of hitting your reader over the head with a two-by-four when a whisper could do the trick.
Find a better way to offer tension and insight than that overused, cliché phrase.
In short, becoming a better writer …
… involves a sort of collaboration with your reader.
And this means you need to respect your reader.
And this means you need to trust your reader.
Trust your reader to get what you’re saying without overexplaining, information dumping, or hitting them over the head with a literary two-by-four.
This takes work. It takes practice. It takes reading good literature and it requires not settling for the first phrase or idea that pops into your mind while you’re writing.
But this is what it means to become a better writer.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, I enjoy coming alongside authors at any stage of the writing journey. I offer coaching, co-writing, developmental editing, line editing, book reviews, book launch assistance, and other assistance and insights.
Feel free to get in touch for more information.
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