Holding Back

There aren’t enough good books about writing out there. If you want to learn about English usage, you can’t do much better than Theodore Bernstein’s books. Right now I’m reading an absolutely marvelous book called Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara – absolutely the best book on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read.

I didn’t like Stephen King’s On Writing as much as I thought I would. But there’s a marvelous chapter that shows how he revised a few pages of his work – everyone should read it. (How often do you get to watch a real writer – a successful one – at work?)

Here’s my favorite point in that chapter: Don’t do your readers’ work for them. In other words, don’t include any unnecessary explanations.

It’s a problem I run into all the time in writing workshops – and, oddly enough, in police reports. (One of the hats I wear is expertise in police report writing – I have a book and a website.)

Here’s what I mean. Officers often write something like this:

Alma responded to his threats by throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor. George became even angrier and retaliated by slapping her face.  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

You don’t need to explain that Alma was responding “to his threats,” or that George “became even angrier and retaliated.” It’s obvious from the two actions (throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor and slapping) that both people are angry. So all you need to write is the following:

Alma threw the mashed potatoes on the floor. George slapped her face.  BETTER

I often come across the same problem – unnecessary explanations – in my writing groups. For example, recently a group member wrote that he thought he was having a heart attack. Because he was all alone, he called a friend and asked for a ride to an emergency room. His description of that evening repeated what readers already knew:

I called George and told him I was having pains in my chest. I was terrified and wanted to go to the emergency room. Could he drop everything and drive me there?  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

All that’s needed are a few words: 

I called my friend George. Ten minutes later I saw the headlights of his car in my driveway.  BETTER

Until I read King’s On Writing, I’d never thought about this issue of unnecessary explanations. “Don’t do your readers’ work for them.” It’s good advice for any writer.

Stephen King On Writing


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