Thursday, February 06, 2014


John here.

By day, I work as the English chair at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts. Part of my duties include picking up the slack where needed. This week, that’s meant the enjoyable task of covering a creative writing class for a colleague.

I have been helping fiction students workshop stories, and some of the discussion has turned to overwriting – something I know a thing or two about because I have sinned as often as the next guy.

Part of avoiding the additional modifier or (God, save us) the unneeded adverb is to think of the reader as a friendly soul who enjoys playing a role in your scene. That is, I try to think of the reader as someone who wants to fill in blanks themselves. I know I like to play an active role when I read.

Attempting to explain this to my students this week, I told them my close friend is a Maine State Police Detective. Then I asked the students to tell me what he looks like. What does my friend wear? A long dark coat. Correct. How does he wear his hair? Short. Crew cut. Close enough. If it was vastly different – and relevant – I’d let the reader know by offering a description. Same with setting: If I’m told the kitchen has a granite countertop, I can imagine what type of appliances line the counter.

I always think of Hemingway as my model: He describes the girl in “Hills Like White Elephants” by telling readers only that she is wearing a sunhat and has an umbrella. So what else is she wearing? Has to be a long dress.

Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. In fact, it is far from easy. We all make that extra brush stroke that takes energy from the scene by telling the reader too much. We all overwrite because we’re not sure we have written what we are trying to convey as clearly as we can.

Telepathy is challenging as hell, but it is part of the fun of writing – and reading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the one revision task I enjoy the most is taking out all the extra description. Glad I'm on the right track. :)