Monday, December 23, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners: Underestimating the Reader

The Ten Writing Tighteners Series is coming to a close. Since Christmas is this week, like a huge portion of the world's population, I'm a bit pressed for time. So, assuming many of my readers might be as well, I'm going to run through this one in a no-nonsense manner (sorry, no photos to break up the text blocks).

Never tell the reader what they already know or will assume.

Trust their memory

An author shouldn't repeat information they've already given the reader.

For instance, once the audience knows the character's physical attributes, they've formed a mental picture. It's unnecessary to beat them over the head with hair color, eye color, or skin tone. It's almost as though the author is telling them, "Sorry, you just aren't bright enough to remember this character has brown hair, even though I told you in chapters 3, 7, and 9."

I've made this mistake numerous times, and probably will again. Recently, I went through my first novel, looking up the key words I used for the male MC's eye color. I was shocked at the number of times I told the reader his eyes were blue.

It's understandable

If the writer has told a story well, when something happens (i.e the characters think or act in a certain way or some other circumstance comes about), the readers already knows it's understandable. It isn't necessary to tell them.

It's understandable I didn't want to go into the dark room.

If the author has done their job properly, the reader will already know why the character is concerned about entering the room.

It's neither here nor there

Whether writing present or past tense, it isn't necessary to explain to the reader the character is/was here or there. 

For example, one thing I run across in my own writing when I edit (I write first person), my character saying/thinking something akin to this:

Here I am, looking through this window at the firetruck racing by. 

If the character is looking out the window, commenting on what they see through the window, the reader already knows they character is here doing so.

In a similar vein, when written in past tense it might look like this:

There I was, with the hose in my hand watching the fire destroy the house.

If the character describes the house burning, it's obvious to the reader the character was there

It's all in their head

When prose are written in first person, or even third person, deep POV, and a thought occurs to the character, it isn't necessary to explain that the thought is in their head. Where else would a thought be? Their foot? Their elbow?

For example:
I'm sawing the log and a thought pops into my head. Why am I using this handsaw when there is a power saw in the garage?

My arm aches as I push and pull, struggling to cut the log. Why am I using this handsaw when there is a power saw in the garage?

In the second passage, the reader gets the same meaning, without the writer having to spell out details which would be assumed.

It is WHERE it is

A reader will always assume an expression is on someone's face. Always.

An expression of pure terror flashed across her face.

Unless there is another place the expression flashed, such as her eyes, the writer can skip that part of the sentence.

She wore an expression of pure terror.

Also, a smile will always be assumed to show on someone's face. After all, where the hell else would it be?

A smile spread over his face.

It's certainly not going to spread over his belly button or his toes. Yes, I'm being ridiculous, but I'm trying to make a point.

His smile spread.

Also, a heart pounds in a person's chest. Unless it's pounding elsewhere, there is no point in explaining where the character's heart is. The audience will assume that's where it is. This falls under that same principle of never tell the reader what they already know or will assume.

Dialogue speaks for itself

I have probably already covered this at some point in this series, but just in case someone doesn't read the entire series, I would be remiss if I don't point it out here as well. There is no need for a writer to explain that someone asked or said something when the dialogue itself shows the reader this happened.

"Where did you put the apples, Jim?" I asked him.

First off, there is no need to add him at the end, the reader knows who the character asked. It's right there in the dialogue. Secondly, unless there is some ambiguity as to who is speaking, there isn't a reason to use the dialogue tag I asked. The reader knows the person speaking asked a question, after all, it's right there between the quotation marks.

All the wonders of the world

When a character wonders something, it isn't necessary to tell the reader that's what they are doing. Just having the question in the text is enough.

I climbed the steps into the attic and wondered if there might be a ghost waiting in the dark.

I climbed the steps into the attic. Is there a ghost waiting in the dark?

The same goes for third person.

Sammy crept down into the root cellar and wondered if there might be a giant spider waiting to wrap him in it's web.

Sammy crept down into the root cellar. Would a giant spider be waiting to wrap him in it's web?

No directions necessary

Authors do not have to tell every step of every action. If a character goes somewhere in a car, the reader will assume certain things about it the character’s actions. They will automatically imagine the character pulls the door handle, opens the door, and closes it upon exit. Unless there is something special about these actions, there’s no need to mention them.

Also, falling under this category is stating the obvious and movement words which imply the direction. Take a look at the following sentence, and yes, it is an over-the-top example, solely for demonstration purposes.

Once inside the room, I crossed over to settle into the bed and sat down, and then I lay down and lifted my arm up over her waist to pull her toward me. (31 words)

Once inside the room[Ex1] , I crossed over to [Ex2] settle intthebed and sat down, and then I lay down [Ex3] and lifted my arm up over her waist to [Ex4] pull her toward me. 

 [Ex1]Obviously they went inside a room, if it wasn’t a room, that would be worth adding. i.e. "Once inside the warehouse...", but even then the reader probably already knows the character is at a warehouse. J

 [Ex2]When the audience reads that the character settles into bed, they will automatically assume they must have crossed the room to the bed.

 [Ex3]By using the words settle into bed, you’ve eliminated the need for "sat down and then I lay down”, all of this is conveyed by settle.

[Ex4]The reader will assume the character has lifted their arm and that he put his arm over her waist if he’s going to be able to pull her toward him. How else would he do it? If he does employ a different method than one would expect,then it’s worth showing the reader. (i.e. if he grasped the back of her nightgown and dragged her to him in that manner.)

Now it reads:
Once inside, I settled into bed and pulled her toward me. (11 words and could probably be pared down even more.)

It is of utmost importance for an author to never underestimate their readers. In my opinion, it insults their intelligence. Audiences pick up a book to be entertained, they don't leave their brain laying on the desk while they do so. They're fully engaged and still using all their faculties while enjoying a good story.

Thank you for taking time to visit. Please share ways you avoid underestimating your readers in the comments section

Ten Writing Tightener Series includes
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/9/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

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  1. This series is an amazing Christmas gift to my writing!! I apppreciate you, Kelley!

  2. Aw, Jennifer, you are sooo soooooo sweet to me. Thank you, I appreciate you too. I feel so incredibly blessed to have met you and made friends with you.


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