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Word for word: reigning in your writing

I love words. I love vivid images. I love the technicality of a beautifully constructed sentence. I love using similes and metaphors to create an imaginary world that lures in my readers. I’ve always admired the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald for his ability to take beautiful images and create a magical, glittering world that contrasts sharply with the ugliness of his characters and the society in which they live. In addition to a great story or plot, I believe that quality writing should also be beautiful, a work of art for readers to study.

But how much description, how much imagery is just enough? How much is too much?

My desire, well-meaning as it may be, to create these aesthetic details is often my worst enemy. Providing too much detail, or overwriting, is almost as distracting as failing to provide enough detail. The struggle for many authors or aspiring authors like me is that overwriting is difficult to detect in my own work. As authors, we typically fall in love with the story we are writing, and like many new relationships, we don’t see the flaws right away. So how should we reign in our writing so that readers don’t get lost in the details?

  1. Just write the story. Over the last few years, I have discussed this issue at length with several mentors and peers. The general consensus for first drafts is to spew out the story. Add as many details as you want, write as slowly or as quickly as you need to, and get through the elements of story first. Once you have completed the first draft, worry about the technicalities.
  2.  Give yourself some distance. Once you have written your first draft, leave the story for a day or two, maybe even a week, depending up on your schedule or any deadlines that might be approaching. Once you have taken some time away from that particular story, approach it again with fresh eyes. Take notes, listing plot holes, problems with dialogue, issues with character development, and, of course, all those lovely details that may or may not be working in the story.
  3. Get a second opinion. Find a great critiquing partner or a few beta readers who will provide honest feedback on your manuscript. I have certainly learned over the last couple of years that I am not my best editor. Critical readers who are willing to invest time in your writing will have enough distance from your work to see problems that you are unable to detect in your own work.
  4. Do some research. I have three “go-to” books on revision, depending upon my focus for revision. I highly recommend STORY by Robert McKee, Second Sight by Cheryl Klein, and the writing tips from On Writing by Stephen King. Whenever I revise a work, I go back to these books to help light my way during heavy revision.
  5. Cut, cut, cut! Those beautiful details and images you have used might be well-constructed. However, a three-sentence description of your characters gorgeous blue eyes that shine like light on water is probably doing nothing to move the story along. If the description is not necessary, cut it out. When we overwrite, we are often forcing descriptions upon the readers, who may not appreciate the intrusion. Give your readers some leeway to use their own imaginations. If you’re reading through your own work, and you feel like you’ve taken your imagery a step or two too far, exercise your right to push the delete button.

Yes, imagery and figurative language are wonderful tools to create a beautiful world your readers will love. However, if you tend to get carried away with character descriptions, setting details, and images that drone on and on, you might need to reign in your words in order to create a clean, publishable work with just enough aesthetics.