Positive Writer

Writing through doubt and fear, and you can, too!

The Secret All Great Storytellers Know

Can you remember the last time you were in the presence of a true storyteller? When we run into those people, at parties or as neighbors or in the next aisle over in the grocery store, we feel it. There’s a kind of magic in the way they set the stage for their yarn, color their characters, feed us details.


Ever notice that the best raconteurs never really give away that many details?

I’m not one of those great storytellers. Good wordsmith, yes. Decent debater and writer of persuasive things, yes. Good recounter of events that actually happened, sure.

But good storyteller? Not really. When I’m telling anything more sophisticated than a knock-knock joke, I always feel compelled to end with, “I guess you had to be there.”

Do you ever feel that way?

Why We Overwrite

Writers can also fall victim to this brand of guess-you-had-to-be-there, but we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t get to watch a listener’s expression make that icky transition from interested to exasperated. We don’t know we’ve overdone it until it’s too late, after we’ve done the work and sent the writing off to other people to be read.

What’s overwriting?

If you’ve ever written a sentence like, “As the dull thud of the footsteps grew louder, Carmen’s hands began to shake,” and then felt the need to follow it up with something like, “She was afraid”—that’s  overwriting.

Your reader knows Carmen is afraid. Her hands are shaking, and as long as she hasn’t suddenly developed some sort of neuromuscular disorder while hiding from your serial killer (plot twist!), there’s no need for further explanation.

Usually, adding too many details is a sign that we don’t trust our readers to “get” our message without a ton of prompting. A preponderance of details betray the our fear of being misunderstood.

 A master storyteller trusts the reader.

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Dump the Detail Habit by Picturing Your Perfect Reader

The one thing all good raconteurs have in common is:

When you listen to them tell a story, you feel entertained, but you also feel trusted. Because they’re not trying to control your every expectation, or fill in every little gap, it’s on you, the listener, to understand and keep up.

The weird thing is: you like that.

Instead of having every nuance handed to them, readers appreciate being given room to imagine when they’re reading your story, but this can be difficult, especially for new writers.

One way to learn to trust your readers is to practice visualizing them.

Devote some of your creative time to not only imaging your characters, but also to imaging the readers that’ll be enjoying those elements once they’re in print.

Who are they? A trusted friend? Your husband or wife? Your kids?

When I’m trying to get a sense of who my reader is, I try not to think of reviewers, or even beta readers. I picture the smartest people I know personally. These people would get impatient with my overwriting, and most importantly, they’re smart cookies, for whom I don’t have to work too hard to make sure they “get it.”

This helps me, on a subconscious level, to scale back the overwriting and quit throwing every detail I can find into the story.

If you try this technique, just be prepared to delete some of those details—even the really good ones—once you know they’re unnecessary! (I find deleting details that are well-written but unnecessary, really difficult, so I’ll move them to a new document for later use. Makes it less painful.)

What strategies do you use to overcome overwriting, and other crises of writing confidence? Share them in the comments!

*This post was by Shanan Haislip. Shanan will be a regular contributor on Positive Writer. Her previous post was: 6 Ways to Enjoy the Editing Process (Seriously). Leave a comment and let Shanan know if you enjoyed her post.*

About Shanan Haislip

I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com and contributed to The Audacity to be a Writer. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

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  • Charles Ray

    One of the things I do to avoid overwriting is to imagine I’m reading the passage. If I find myself writing something that I’d skip over if I was reading, I backspace and delete.

    • Charles, this is a great tip for me…to delete the stuff I’d skip over. Thx.

      • Good tip for me, too!

        • Charles Ray

          Always glad to be useful.

      • Charles Ray

        You’re most welcome.

    • Great tip! Thanks for sharing it!

      • Charles Ray

        Glad you find it useful.

    • Great tip and one I plan to use – thank Charles! A very timely post for me Shan – thank you!

  • LadyJevonnahEllison

    Donald Miller just came out with a story telling brand, and it was hugely helpful. It helps me to just write the story first, then let it “simmer”. Basically, that means to wait a day or two and go back and read it with fresh eyes.

    • Really important point. As we write we get too flow to the work to make decisions effectively. Getting distance is always good. Thanks for reading!

  • Hi Shanan, Thanks for the great reminder not to overwrite but to leave room for the reader to make her own discoveries.

    Enjoyed your posting!

    • PS.

      What I do: I read my writing aloud before sending it out. Hearing it, not just looking at the words, helps me recognize what feels draggy, bogged down and bloated.

      They say… less is more. So I working on doing that.

      I’m also learning to be more detached to my writing, to let the story be the star, not the author.

    • That’s a great summary, Brenda! Thanks!

  • Pinar Tarhan

    I try not to overwrite. Sometimes it’s hard, but I think I’ve managed it. But now I have a word count problem. It’s under 70,000 – and it’s adult fiction:)

    • Quality counts! And I remember reading that word counts seem to matter less than they once did, especially if you plan to self publish. 70,000 is still a good amount!

  • PsychicWitness

    This is a great blog. I’ll have to check over my writing to make sure I’m not guilty of over writing. Thanks for posting!

    • Just make sure you save the good stuff and recycle!

  • Amelia Robin King

    First, I love the picture. Second thanks for the not overwrite reminder. Funny as may sounds I discover bold writing by reading some fanfiction. English is not my first language, that’s why I noticed short sentences. I guess those fanfics where written by really good fan/writers!

    • I like that picture, too! Bryan always chooses great art to accompany blog posts. And if fanfiction is your reading genre (is it really a genre?) of choice, your writing will eventually reflect the fanfic style that you’re reading. You can build your own unique voice in that way! Thanks for reading.

      • Amelia Robin King

        I think you are right, fanfiction helped me to find my voice. I mean I wrote short stories and novel drafts, but I felt I missed something. Fanfictions in english made me realize how some spanish speakers like me, tend to write long sentences and describe every detail. It was a good way to learn some writing skills and reading in english. I’ve benn reading novels in english and learn a lot, but fanfiction was the beginning to me. (I’m still learning english by the way)

  • Lilnda Bridges

    This was a great article. I chuckled because just the day before a friend was helping me with some awkward wording in a children’s story I’m writing–and Shanon pointed it out so well in her article–I was overwriting! I deleted a whole paragraph (so beautifully written!) and a line or two. The story is clearer and tighter and easier to read aloud. Thanks Shanon–and thank Brian for posting this article. I felt it was just for me. 🙂

    • Getting rid of beautifully written but unnecessary paragraphs is hard work and it takes guts. Glad this helped you!

  • Norah Colvin

    Recently I have been participating in a flash fiction challenge set by Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch Communications http://carrotranch.com/2014/02/05/why-flash-fiction/. Flash fiction is a sure way of cutting out extra words!

    • Charles Ray

      And, contrary to what some people might think, flash fiction is extremely difficult to write. Reminds me of a story about a man who said, after writing something, that if he’d had more time, he would have written less. Can;t remember the exact quote or who said it, but it certainly applies.

      • Charles, I think that was Abraham Lincoln?

    • I think every long-form fiction writer should make flash fiction part of their regular writing routine, just as a musician would practice etudes, or a runner would do speedwork. It keeps you agile and sharpens your work. (For poets, true haiku? and for nonfiction writers – the essay?) Thanks for the link, Norah!

  • Getting rid of unnecessary well-written writing is painful but once you clean up the blood, you can move on. I love that you put it in a folder to let it belong somewhere. Great post, Bryan.

    One strategy I try to use, when I remember is to think of how I feel when someone tells me too much. I feel like a child instead of an adult. I don’t want to dummy down my audience. Still practicing this though.

    • Hey Anne, thanks so much for the complement, but this was written by Shanan Haislip. She’s a wonderful writer and will be a regular on Positive Writer. I’m super glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

    • Anne, that childish feeling is a great way to remember to avoid overwriting. No writer wants to do that to their reader (and children’s books are some of the sparest of all, which speaks to the skill of that genre’s writers). Glad you shared it!

  • Simply brilliant!

    • Thanks, Mike!

  • James Pailly

    Orson Scott Card once said that a story is not something a writer creates by putting ink on paper. It’s a collaboration of the writer and the reader, and what’s created exists in the reader’s mind.

    • True – the canvas is the mind of the reader, to extend that metaphor to its logical end. I like that!

  • Marianne Kesler

    I also write songs, and in songwriting I also end up with lines I can’t bear to part with … they get moved to another page below the finished song page file. I have often gone back and nabbed a line or two for use in a later song! Thanks for sharing Shanan! http://www.mariannekesler.com

    • Marianne, that’s a great idea! Nobody ever said the great lines we write should be wasted… just strategically deployed for greatest effectiveness (yikes, there’s the business writer talking again). Thanks for posting!

  • One of Mickey Spillane’s books begins by saying on such and such a street he picked up a tail. It would insult the street cred of his reader to explain what precisely he meant. The reader, the way Spillane writes, feels about as savvy as Mike Hammer.

    As Walt Whitman advised: ‘always leave the best unsaid.’

    • Kenton, this example perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about! No further embellishment needed.

  • obiagelin

    I’m glad I came across this piece. It reminds that am doing the right thing in my stories. I occasionally omit ideas and allow the reader to use their senses. I also apply it in my blog: http://www.storieswithoutborder.wordpress.com/ and no one seems to complain.

  • Jake Parent

    What a great piece. I agree 100% Of course, it’s important to remember that NONE of those writers got that concise voice down on the first try. There is a lot of editing that goes into it. But that’s part of the key, to understand that writing is a process and not be afraid to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, and cut some more.

  • Love this article! I just went to a conference with Brandilyn Collins as a keynote speaker, she repeated this over and over and over and I can’t seem to get this message enough! Thank you for reiterating it! It’s so true!