Don’t you ever get sick of talking to people that gab on and on and on and on? The sort of person that simply has to yammer about everything under the sun? You stand there, politely holding your tongue, nodding as if to convey a continued sense of interest, until you can’t stand it anymore, and you shout the first and only phrase running through your mind:

WILL YOU JUST GET TO THE POINT?!”

It’s annoying, right? Well, why exactly do writers think they’re allowed to similarly waste our time? How do so many authors think they’ve become so poetically endowed that they can wax boring by plopping thesaurus chunks in our laps for half a book at a time? (Excuse the purple…it slips in during high levels of stress.)

This is the 21st century; time isn’t so much a river these days as it is a waterfall. No one wants to get involved with a conversation that’s going to waste time, and no one wants to sit down with a book that’s going to do the same thing.

OK, ROCKY, YOU’VE YAMMERED ON FOR THREE PARAGRAPHSGET TO THE POINT ALREADY.

A few months back, the University of Arizona (soon to be my Alma Mater) held its First Annual Festival of Books, which I attended. Of the ten or twelve classes and workshops I attended, I managed to take away one very short, very simple piece of advice.

“When in doubt, lower your standards.”

The heck? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, it’s referring to your written work, or, more specifically, your rough draft. Simply put, it means you just sit down and write. But, being the beneficent soul that I am, I’ll elaborate.

Lowering your standards refers directly to the way your story is written. What this does, when you get it hammered into your head, is force you to think in simple terms. Don’t sit there trying to explain what a rainstorm is. We already know what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like, and 98% of readers aren’t interested in a meteorological report. That’s what the weather channel’s for. What we want to know is what it does. Well…the sky is covered with clouds, the winds pick up, and the rain falls over everything. End of story.

Guess what? You just lowered your standards and kept it simple. Now move on. This isn’t a major set piece, so don’t treat it like a climax. You’ll be able to concentrate on what the story requires of the rainstorm rather than making the story about what the rainstorm is. And the reader will love you for it.

Another important area for lowering your standards is with your characters. Wait…what? Lower my standards for my characters? Yes, but only in how they’re written. When you see a screencap of the cast from any of the Indiana Jones films, how do you know which one is the titular character? Because he’s wearing a leather jacket and fedora.

When you’re writing your characters, describe them in simple terms. Know what that does? It’s going to force you to distinguish between the characters. You can’t have an old, grey-haired doctor and an old, grey-haired doctor running around in the same story without generating mass confusion. You need to describe each of those old doctors unique to each other in just one or two sentences.

Um…why just one or two sentences? Well, readers will usually only absorb and/or tolerate so much detail at a given time. Not only are they going to not remember each of your six main characters’ height, weight, hair color, parents’ year of marriage, sixth grade report cards, and their individual number of flu shots since birth, but they’ll zone out, lose interest, and shelve the book altogether.

Give them a single, colorful sentence that is different from the other characters, something they can latch on to. Give them a setting, an object, or a motion that they can sense immediately. When you do that, you won’t be dragging out the detail of the mountains or the exact cut of a character’s facial hair, but you’ll be telling a story about how the mustachioed man was able to cross those mountains.

And most importantly, you won’t be wasting the reader’s time.

Comment

  1. Juniper on 24 May 2009, 00:16 said:

    I like this article. It did not waste my time. :)

  2. Snow White Queen on 24 May 2009, 01:36 said:

    Me too. I have a problem with wasting people’s time with boring and/or pointless information that’s interesting only to me.

    This might be mostly because I have enough trouble getting everything out, so I just spew word vomit with the good intentions of going back and fixing everything later.

  3. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 24 May 2009, 02:04 said:

    I like the 1-2 sentence rule. Seriously, I think I need to go have a long hard look at my characters. I always end up with about six main characters (influenced by Elizabeth Honey, I think) and they’re never any different to each other. And they have no characteristics. And I call myself a writer!

    Thanks for an enlightening article!

  4. CGilga on 24 May 2009, 10:02 said:

    You know, I’ve actually had to increase my standards. I’ve tried to write by the 1-2 sentence rule and whenever I shared the story I was told I was too vague.

    Although, in all honesty I prefer the 1-2 rule. It is more fun for me, and I get flowing a lot quickly and easily.

  5. Spanman on 24 May 2009, 10:40 said:

    Speaking of authors who waste time, the massive infodumps in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were such that I found myself skipping entire chapters at a time. Aheh. I butchered the classics.

    Anyway, it’s a good article and something I need to be reminded of pretty constantly. Like Juniper said, it did not waste my time. ^^

  6. Rocky on 24 May 2009, 10:50 said:

    This sort of technique has been on my mind for the past few months. I hope it helps you guys, because it’s certainly helped me.

  7. OverlordDan on 24 May 2009, 11:43 said:

    Ya did it, Rocky! Great article.

  8. lccorp2 on 24 May 2009, 11:55 said:

    Spanman, the reason why I don’t spork or use works regarded as classics as examples is because they were written in a very different era, with different audiences in mind and different conventions of writing back then. If we consider things in the same genre, look at the way LOTR is written, and then look at say, hmm…The Name of the Wind is written, even though both are in the High Fantasy subgenre.

    It definitely was acceptable to be far more wordy back then than it is now, people expected different things out of a novel than what we do today. Mumbles suggested that I take Narnia as an example of Christian Fantasy, but I couldn’t do that because back then, it was reasonable to assume that most of the people who would be reading the book would be Caucasian Christians and wouldn’t be too bothered with the Satan-worshipping black Arabs, for example.

    I believe it’s rather silly to judge classics by contemporary standards, and vice versa. Of course Les Miserables is going to be wordy—if you want it more direct, you could watch the musical. It’s still quite good, and not too many of the important plot elements are lost.

  9. Relayer on 24 May 2009, 15:29 said:

    Yeah but musicals are for faggots

  10. Devin Monahan on 24 May 2009, 16:02 said:

    “But, but, it’s just so necessary to describe every outfit my characters wear, so I can show how diverse and expansive my world is! And description helps with character development, too! If one of my characters didn’t tug on her braid in every single scene, we wouldn’t see how exasperated she always is!”

    Putting on my serious face now. This was a great article/rant. I don’t find anything here I disagree with, all good points. I especially like the “when in doubt, lower your standards.” Really good advice.

  11. Spanman on 24 May 2009, 16:37 said:

    lccorp, I don’t judge classics by contemporary standards, but by my standards. Even if I lived in a time when excessive wordiness was the norm, I doubt that I would enjoy reading a few chapters dedicated to describing a bird’s-eye view of a city I’ve never been to. LOTR is, in some ways, the same. Probably the reason why I took a month to read the series and have not read it again since. It’s good when you have the time and the patience. But I doubt most of us here have the time to sit and read all day to fully enjoy the subtle sensations and prosaic feel-goods that come with the purple, if you look hard enough. Until I do have the time and patience (i.e. when I’m jobless or old), I’d rather leave it on the shelf.

  12. Snow White Queen on 24 May 2009, 16:56 said:

    Some people just don’t like having to sift through all sorts of words to get to the main idea. Personally, I’m pretty patient (most of the time) and I can handle it, but I can see why people would just get exasperated and throw the book across the room.

    As for Les Miserables, I could never get through the whole thing, which perhaps proves Spanman’s point. I kept on getting confused during the Marius section, where everyone was running around under different identities and so on.

    I might only have understood LotR and was able to appreciate the book because I saw the movies first. I’m glad I read the book, though, even if it’s long. It adds a whole other dimension. I think LotR is one of the few cases where the wordiness and all actually helped with the atmosphere of the books. I don’t think cutting it down would have made it better

  13. swenson on 24 May 2009, 22:33 said:

    This was a good article- even if the final product doesn’t need to be distilled down to two sentences, it’s certainly a good rule to keep in mind. If you aim for two sentences of description and go over, you’ll only end up with four or five sentences- not fifty!

  14. Rocky on 24 May 2009, 23:58 said:

    I think this sort of writing technique works well for those of us who struggle with just getting something written. My habit is to spend hours fighting my way through a chapter that, once completed, feels unsatisfactory.

    But, yes, I really only recommend this for the rough draft.

  15. SMARTALIENQT on 25 May 2009, 08:39 said:

    This definitely helps. I know I have a manuscript somewhere with a character to whom I had devoted two paragraphs describing only her appearance. shudder

    And I never got past the fourth chapter of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I had no idea what the heck was going on and I wondered where Quasi was coming in with his talking gargoyles. :)

  16. CGilga on 25 May 2009, 08:58 said:

    I think Quasi actually comes in around the second chapter, or so. It’s been a while, so don’t hold me to that.

    But yeah, no one I’ve met understood that book if they didn’t skip all the description.

  17. swenson on 25 May 2009, 10:03 said:

    Ugh… try Last of the Mohicans for pages and pages of description that no one cares about. Although those books suddenly became far more entertaining after I read Mark Twain’s “review” of them.

  18. Artimaeus on 25 May 2009, 10:43 said:

    Amen. Amen brother. I decided a couple of days ago that I was going to get through the second have of Brisingr, and I must say, this article is a breath of fresh air.

  19. Rand on 25 May 2009, 19:00 said:

    I liked this article because I’ve recently started a new story and had only two paragraphs because I kept going back and wanting to be sure that every sentence is this neat little package. Which isn’t going to happen anytime soon, which just made me more paranoid.
    Anyway, I will be trying to keep things simple. Thanks for the advice.

  20. lccorp2 on 25 May 2009, 19:58 said:

    @Spanman and Snow Queen: My point exactly. Today’s culture and expectations are far different than those of yesteryear—it’s been theorised that the advent of TV and other related media have helped change the expectations of pacing which people have for stories. After all, it’s hard to put lots of descriptive padding into a primarily visual media.

    Well, yes, if you were plucked up from your seat right now and plonked back in time, I doubt that’d make you magically enjoy the classics or understand the way people spoke. I do believe, though, that it’d be hard to say for sure given the wildly different circumstances if your feelings about the books would be the same. Time’s been mentioned; no TV, no radio, no internet—people who were well-off enough to be literate and able purchase the written word often had time enough to spend reading.

  21. MrHyde on 27 May 2009, 17:39 said:

    So audiences are different. And we must adapt? Really? What does it mean to be a great writer? Is it Clancy, giving the mass market exactly what they want? Or is it the artist struggling to be noticed; whose work may be entirely forgotten within a decade or might experience a revival long after the bones of such artist are interred.

    Why should we follow the whims of our audience? Is our purpose always to please our audience? Or do we have a higher calling? And is that higher calling perhaps better served at times through more careful, deliberate, and thorough narration in the style of the great classics.

  22. Rocky on 27 May 2009, 18:30 said:

    That depends on your audience. If you’re writing for yourself, then go about it any way you want.

    However, if you’re attempting to establish a readership—to entertain through the written word—then you’ll need to at least maintain a basic understanding of what the public expects and accepts. But lowering your standards is a tool only for the rough draft. You start small and work your way to bigger things. You don’t hang pictures and wire ceiling fans before your foundation is set or your support structure is up.

    The point of the rough draft is to hammer out the skeleton of the story. Prettiness is taken into account during the editing and rewriting process, because it’s impossible to determine precisely what a story needs otherwise.

  23. Bumble B. on 28 May 2009, 19:16 said:

    Thanks for the article. I need to find a way to show it to my friend. She once devoted a whole chapter of her story to describing her character’s appearance and life. It wasn’t a very long chapter, but it would have been better to actually start the story. It’s not surprising that she named the character after herself. >.>

    It’s so grating when a story is derailed to describe someone in detail, complete with the names of the brands that they’re wearing.

  24. Sir Random on 13 June 2009, 18:20 said:

    I always lower my standards. I get recognized as a lazy bum most of the time but I am to the point. Potato salad.