My younger sister is a teacher. She often gives directions, then has to repeat them, then has to explain them (as high school students aren’t necessarily known for their listening skills). Because of that, she’s gotten into the habit of repeating and overexplaining things when she talks to her family and friends. It’s not uncommon to hear something like this:
We need to leave the house by three so we don’t get stuck in rush hour traffic. Rush hour is usually between four and six, and that’s when traffic is the heaviest because everyone gets out of work at the same time. It can take twice as long to drive through rush hour, so we need to leave the house by three.
That kind of over explanation works in small doses, but even those of us who know her well have to occasionally remind her that we don’t need step-by-step instructions for everything. People who don’t know her can feel insulted by the repetitiveness (as if she thinks they aren’t smart enough to understand what she’s talking about).
What does this have to do with novel writing? Everything!
Why? Because new authors tend to overexplain and repeat everything to make sure the reader knows what’s going on. Instead of making things clear, however, the readers (like people who don’t know my sister) often feel insulted (and bored) as they reread the same information over and over again.
How do you make sure you’re not overexplaining (and insulting your reader)? Here are two ways you can trust your reader more:
- Don’t explain the obvious. There are a lot of ways writers do this. Some are on the smaller scale. For example, she clapped her hands—you can delete her hands because she wouldn’t clap her feet. A larger scale explanation would be something like the rush hour example. The majority of people know what rush hour is. There’s no need to explain it. The few people who don’t understand it will look it up.
- Don’t repeat the details. After you introduce a character with blue eyes, you don’t have to mention those details every time she shows up on the page. Another point-of-view character might notice her eye color the first time he sees her, but there’s no reason to mention them in every scene she’s in. The reader will remember. The same is true for her age, hair color, height, etc. (A couple of reminders throughout the story are fine, but mention these details too many times and the reader will start skimming.)
Start looking for and keeping track of these things (e.g. how many times do you mention your characters’ ages?) and you’ll not only tighten your writing, you’ll keep the reader engaged and wanting more.