Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Keep it real, only more interesting

Kathryn says: Originally published October 14, 2008, I wanted to give this BRP post by Helen Ginger another airing because its title alone contains such classic writing advice. Including irrelevant detail is one of the most common rookie mistakes in manuscripts I edit.

Some people may think an editor looks only for the commas, split infinitives, missing words, misspellings – all the mundane stuff. Yes, we read a manuscript and find those things. But we also look beyond the basics.

For example, we note the minutiae that need to be cut. And we note when the small details are not actually minutiae, but important stuff that has to be left in.

Even if you’re writing a memoir, a person’s everyday life does not make for an interesting book. Let’s face it, our daily lives are boring. Even when something different happens, it’s boring.

I got locked out of the house last week. So what? I unloaded the groceries, put the refrigerator and freezer stuff in the freezer, then headed to Starbucks for coffee. I talked to a friend of mine who recently went for a walk and got lost. Totally lost. Completely turned around. By the time she got back home, she’d been out trying to find her way for five and a half hours. I call that an adventure. But to put it in a book, there’d have to be more than just her walking, going in circles, for hours.

If a book character gets locked out of the house, something would need to happen, like she’d hear the phone ringing and someone leaving a threatening message, but she couldn’t see caller ID … or a wild-eyed woman would appear from the back of the house, gun in hand. If a book character goes for a walk and gets lost, she’d have to be stalked, or kidnapped, or fall off a cliff or lose her memory. Or perhaps encounter a handsome stranger. Or whatever.

Not only does every scene have to have purpose and move the story forward, you have to cut the mundane wherever possible as long as it’s not relevant. You could write:
Stephanie grabbed the keys from the bowl on the entry table, then took one last look around.

Her car shuddered as it pulled from the curb.
If we don’t really need to know what happened in-between those two things, then don’t tell us. Do we need to know she slung her purse over her right shoulder, swiveled and walked to the door? Closed the door behind her? Crossed the porch? Walked down the four steps to the sidewalk? Walked to the car? Opened the driver-side door? Inserted the key into the ignition? Adjusted the mirror?

I’m not saying cut all the minutiae. Sometimes details can be very telling. Sometimes you can hide important clues among a list of unimportant things. But everything is not always important.

If your character gets locked out of the house, have something interesting happen. If your character gets lost, make it worth reading.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir.
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  1. Wow, I can't believe we didn't get comments on this last time. It was such a great post. I really love rereading these - some good information in our archives!

  2. Excellent post, Kathryn! I'm going to send my clients here to read this great advice. Well said, with good examples.

  3. Oh - I just noticed - this post was written by Helen Ginger. Way to go, Helen! Good stuff!

  4. I may have the opposite problem. I know she has to get to her car and drive off. Who cares if she's picked up her keys and her purse and locked the door and walked to the curb and ...? So I tend to "teleport" characters into their cars or back to their offices, etc, when all I needed was that phrase to bridge the gap from action to action.

  5. Jodie: I'll take credit for Helen's brilliance any day!

    Gayle: I'm not sure what your concern is. If the character was in her house and now she's in her office, the reader will assume she got there by some traditional means (unless you've previously established the possibility of teleportation, etc.). If the mode of transportation provides no important plot information, you don't need it. A line break is often all the indication you need to suggest the jump cut.

  6. Thanks for passing this on. It was a great article.

  7. In my first critique at a Chicago-North RWA meeting many years ago, I was guilty of adding all kinds of extra stuff in my manuscript that was boring to the extreme. I thought it was necessary, but soon learned it needed to get out of there.

    No one needs to know that a character brushes his or her teeth, unless maybe something weird happens in the process, like one of the teeth falls out, or something like that.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Excellent article, Helen. And thanks to Kathryn for reposting it! It takes practice and a discerning eye (and mind) to know what to cut and what to leave. I struggle with this all the time in my novels and that's why a good editor is so important.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Thank you Kathryn. I didn't even realize this had re-posted.

    You really don't need to show all the details unless they affect the plot. For example, you can say (or have the character say or think) they're going to take a bath, then in the next paragraph have them lowering their body into the hot water or bubbles.'re hiding a clue in all the details of getting the bath together, for example.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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