Most Common Writing Mistakes: A Surefire Sign You’re Over-Explaining

Authors are in a tough spot. Readers expect us to supply them with enough info to help them imagine our story worlds and our characters’ emotions in vivid details. But readers also expect us to never provide too many details. They want us to explain; but they never want us to over-explain.

Over-explaining can manifest in several ways, but the core of the problem is always repetition—and it’s usually symptomatic of authorial insecurity. We distrust our ability to explain things well enough the first time around, so we stick in a second, or even third, explanation, just to make sure readers get the point.

But not only are these inner girders unnecessary more often than not, they also tend to have exactly the opposite of the desired effect: instead of strengthening our prose, they weaken it. We end up with flabby sentences, confused metaphors, and condescending descriptions.

Explanation Overkill

Tears welled in Keira’s eyes. She was so sad she could just cry. Her heart felt like it was about to bleed itself dry, like it was about to crumble into a million infinitesimal pieces, like it was breaking. “How can you treat me like this?” she sniffed dismally.

Poor Keira. She’s getting smacked around from all over the place. Not only is she sad and apparently mistreated, she’s also getting absolutely no benefit of the doubt from her author. This example features just about every kind of over-explanation you can imagine:

  • Telling that’s repetitious in light of a strong example of showing.
  • Three metaphoric descriptive phrases where one would do.
  • An unnecessary dialogue tag.
  • A gratuitous adverb modifying that tag.

Explanation Excellence

Instead of milking this dramatic moment for all its worth, we’d be better off trusting the drama itself to carry the day. We could easily cut almost all of our original explanation without weakening the effect:

Tears welled in Keira’s eyes. “How can you treat me like this?”

Particularly if your subtext is strong enough to indicate why Keira is so upset, readers will understand she’s sad enough to cry ergo her heart is breaking ergo she’s dismal. You don’t need to tell readers what they can glean for themselves.

True enough that you can also go overboard in avoiding explanation. You always want to give readers enough external detail to help them visualize characters and settings and enough internal detail to help them vicariously share your character’s emotions. This is an equation to which only you can determine the right answer. But, when in doubt, err on the side of less explanation rather than too much. Readers are smart, and they love it when we acknowledge their intelligence.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever worry that your descriptions are too subtle?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. A lot of times my descriptions are but my CP is quick to tell me where she’s not getting it or I haven’t explained as well as I could.

  2. Beta readers and critique partners are vital for this sort of thing. It can be difficult for authors to be sure they’re nailing the balance without getting objective outside input.

  3. Beta readers are amazing for weeding out this sort of thing. Thanks so much for reminding me not to over explain. It’s an easy mistake that half the time I don’t even realize I’m making.

  4. I find myself cutting excessive explanation most of the time, but when I do have people read my work, I do occasionally get told I need to explain more about certain goings on. It usually happens sporadically in a work.

    That being said, sometimes over the course of a 300 page book, you do have to remind your reader about things that happened previously, so don’t let that type of repetition go by the wayside! I find that happens most commonly in mysteries, where a little clue is brought into the foreground later on, or when the detective is trying to make sense of what has been placed before them, they’ll go back over what they’ve learned. Very common for repetition in that sense.

  5. @Jennifer: I often find it helpful to go ahead and over-explain on purpose in first drafts. Once I have all the info out of my system, I can step back and evaluate what’s really useful – then trim accordingly.

    @Liberty: Yes, a little well-timed reminder here and there is important. However, authors often tend to think readers need reminding more often than they really do. We write our stories over months or even years, while readers read them in days or even hours. They’re more likely to remember details than we are sometimes!

  6. Like I said… I see it most often in mysteries. 😉

  7. As smart as most mystery readers are, sometimes those early clues have to be almost invisible to go unnoticed. In cases like that, readers are likely to need to be reminded.

  8. In my early days writing I used to hate cutting, especially if I thought I’d created a beautiful, creative sentence or graph. Now, I love to cut out the fat. It respects the reader.

  9. In my early days writing I used to hate cutting, especially if I thought I’d created a beautiful, creative sentence or graph. Now, I love to cut out the fat. It respects the reader.

  10. In my early days writing I used to hate cutting, especially if I thought I’d created a beautiful, creative sentence or graph. Now, I love to cut out the fat. It respects the reader.

  11. In my early days writing I used to hate cutting, especially if I thought I’d created a beautiful, creative sentence or graph. Now, I love to cut out the fat. It respects the reader.

  12. My descriptions ARE too subtle. I don’t retain or notice details, so to me, a single details looks like a lot. I often end up repeating them not out of authorial insecurity, but because it is so hard for me to get them in there. I forget them almost as soon as I add them, so when I hit another detail spot, I hit a trigger and think, “What detail can I add?” and go for exactly the same detail.

  13. I know the feeling! It’s an incredibly satisfying, even liberating, feeling to excise all that unnecessary wordage.

  14. @Linda: This isn’t necessarily a bad habit in the first draft. Sometimes we have to dig deep for the third or fourth detail before we find the best one. The trick is recognizing and deleting what we don’t need when it comes time to edit.

  15. It actually ends up having significant impact on the story itself. If I wait to add the details on a revision, it adds about 10 times the revision work that if I got them in the story in the first place.

  16. Thanks for sharing some examples on where to draw the line with description. It’s quite true and something I need to guard against.

  17. Love your comment about looking for the right detail. I have done it a couple of times and need to turn it into a habit…
    That said… what’s your take on over-explanation when it comes to comedy or bold emphasis?
    (Forgive the naive questions… )

    “Tears swelled up in Keira’s eyes, along with a feeling of gloomy redundancy so strong her sobs were sobbing”
    or
    “Tears swelled up in Keira’s eyes. The dam holding her grief had finally broken, the force of the aching release leaving her barely able to speak. “How could you treat me like that?”.

  18. Sometimes I write too wordy, at least, when writing college essays.

  19. @Linda: I like to strike a happy medium. I’ll write three or four details beyond what’s necessary sometimes, then analyze them on the spot, choose the best one, and delete the rest.

    @Rich: Writers like to write! It’s no wonder we sometimes over-write.

    @Danny: Humor is a different ballpark. You can get away with breaking just about any rule in the name of comedy – if, of course, you do it well. Basically, in an instance like this, what you’re doing is making fun of your own bad writing.

    @Kay: If you have a specific word count you have to aim for, you can often end up writing filler just to reach it.

  20. The shorter example just SOUNDS stronger. I was able to feel more emotion with the “Tears welled in Keira’s eyes” than with that whole huge paragraph explaining what she felt like.

    Just proves a point, doesn’t it?

  21. Less is almost always more. Bottom line in fiction.

  22. You’re absolutely right, it’s about acknowledging the reader’s intelligence and trusting that they are picking up the subtle details. If you’re over-explaining its tantamount to saying to the reader, “You might not get what I’m saying in the first couple of sentences. I have to make doubly sure.”

    Trust the readers. They’re clever people.

  23. I always like to say that our readers are at least as smart as we are – if not smarter.

  24. Well said. This is such a common mistake for new writers. I always advise novice writers that less is more. Liberal use of purple prose doesn’t show one is a good writer–quite the opposite. Thanks for a great post. I would only add that I generally spot instances of over-writing during my first rounds of revision. It’s easily fixed by hitting the delete button.

  25. I used to be too generous with my descriptions, but I think that’s because in French, this is pretty much the norm. Prose is more ornate. Now, however, I sometimes tend to be too concise. I guess It’s a question of tuning at this point.

  26. @cg: Yes, that’s the great thing about this particular mistake. Nothing’s easier than hitting the backspace button a few (dozen) times.

    @Stephanie: Balance, always balance. We all tend to swing first one way, then the other. It just takes experience to figure out how to walk that tightrope.

  27. I usually have to cut out something I thought was particularly clever. A turn of phrase I worked hard on…but then, I stuck it in not because it moved the story forward, but because I was proud of myself. I have a great CP that is wonderful about helping me trip the fat.

  28. Killing our darlings is never fun. But it’s so necessary sometimes!

  29. Hi K.M.

    I often over explain more than I’d like to. But once I re-read my work I can usually spot this. Thank you for highlighting this matter.

  30. As long we catch it in the edits, that’s all that matters.

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  32. Awesome post! Thank you!

    I think this is something we, writers, learn with time (to trust our explanations).

    Thanks again! Will be having it in mind!

    xoxo

    M.

  33. It’s definitely a matter of first gaining experience, then learning to trust that experience.

  34. So true 🙂 It was for me like that anyway 😛

    Experience is worth its weight in many areas ^^

  35. Can’t make this mistake if you stick to simple MRUs (motivation-reaction units): Motivation, Emotion, Instintive reaction, Rational action. Always in this order, ie:

    >>”The fact is that I don’t want to be with you anymore, James,” she said. “Just do us both a favour and go.”

    >>He was gutted. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Then he turned around and walked away.< < Motivation: “The fact is that I don’t want to be with you anymore, James,” she said. “Just do us both a favour and go.” 1) Emotion: He was gutted.
    2) Instinctive reaction: He opened his mouth and closed it again.
    3) Rational action: Then he turned around and walked away.

    Except for the motivation, you can leave any one or even two of these steps out, but it always has to follow in this sequence.

    Most new writers over-explain because their MRUs don’t make sense to them. They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what. Most of the time it’s the sequence of the reactions. Because it’s the wrong way around, and because most new writers don’t know how to identify the problem, they try to fix it by over-explaining.

  36. MRUs are a fabulous way to strip down paragraphs and identify their foundational elements. You’ve done a great job explaining the basics. If anyone would like to read more about them, they can check out this post.

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