Finding the Right Balance of Information for Your Readers

How many times have you been told your readers are smart? We’re warned repeatedly not to dumb down our writing, because chances are good that our readers are just as smart, if not smarter, than we are. If we treat them like dummies who can’t be trusted to understand complex language or ignoramuses who need every detail of plot and setting described to them in depth, they’re likely to hurl out books across the room, write us scathing reviews, and possibly even sock us in the nose should they ever stumble across one of our book readings.

So naturally we try to give our readers their fair share of credit. We don’t exult in our own perceived intelligence by explaining every little ol’ thing. We assume readers will be smart enough to draw from the context to understand unfamiliar words and to put the plot pieces together just as quickly as we would be able to do ourselves. By doing this, we create a story atmosphere in which we bring readers in as partners in our storytelling. We’re giving them the pieces they need and trusting them to put them together properly

But there’s a dark flipside to this. Sometimes we can assume readers actually understand more than they do. This is particularly true in stories with unfamiliar settings, such as fantasy, historical, or even jargon- and protocol-heavy sub-settings such as the legal world.

The average reader who is uninitiated to these times and places won’t necessarily know enough to keep pace with us when we start throwing strange terminology and social mores at them. The fact that we, as the authors, always know exactly what we’re talking about doesn’t help matters, since we can often be spectacularly nonobjective about the clarity of our writing.

We must consider carefully everything we write and weigh it to determine whether we’re succeeding in walking that narrow line between insulting readers’ intelligence and just flat-out bewildering them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What will be the trickiest aspect of your story for your reader to understand? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Hopefully nothing – in this book. But there are other books I’ve written where that may not be as true like my historical novels. So far none of my crit partners have mentioned anything so that’s a good thing, I hope!

  2. This is yet another area in which crit partners are invaluable. A set of objective eyes can help us spot exactly where we’re stepping into the brambles.

  3. I have a lot of problems with this–oddly enough–in personal essays. But it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine that anyone does not know what Smaug is (especially in light of the upcoming Hobbit movie) or who Aslan is…

  4. Now that both have been introduced to popular culture, you’re probably safe. In instances like those, there’s actually something to be said for *not* explaining a reference, since it gives the sense of insider knowledge between you and those of your readers who get it.

  5. I don’t think you can ever assume that everyone is going to know a particular thing such as who Aslan is as in Galadriel’s example. Several people I know don’t have a clue about Narnia. Isn’t it better to perhaps not over-explain to the point of boredom and frustration, but briefly explain to either refresh a reader’s memory or catch another one up to the rest of the world?

  6. There is no blanket answer for this, of course. The best choice for each scenario won’t necessarily be the same. In non-fiction, such as Galadriel’s essays, I tend to think the author has a little bit more leeway, particularly if he’s dealing with popular facts that *most* people will be able to grasp. Fiction is a different kettle of fish, since the information is usually important if the reader is to understand not just the info itself but also what’s going on in the story. In that case, I prefer stories that are constructed to allow me, as the reader, to glean the facts, rather than just being told them point black. But then again, there are sometimes instances in which the author just doesn’t have any other choice.

  7. Depends on which ms. I’ve got a paranormal & sequel with science (viral/bioengineering) and a historical. The reader only has to understand enough to understand the plot. They will only see a fraction of the research I did behind the scenes.

    But speaking as a reader, I think the trick is not being too repetitive, while taking care to word what you do include so it doesn’t seem like a dump or a lesson. Sneak it to me in small chunks, weaving it into good writing, even using humor sometimes, and I won’t notice because I’m enjoying the story so much. 🙂

  8. Spot on. If we can do that, then we’ve mastered the art of walking that line.

  9. I tend to deal with fantasy world, or I should say my characters live in one, so it’s always a balance to discover what’s too much info and not enough. I rely on my beta readers a lot for this. Great topic!!

  10. I like to include quotes from other works as part of the body of my writing, and sometimes those quotes are in a foreign language. My own policy as a reader is that if I encounter such quotes, I can either figure out what is being said, ignore them or look them up. Today readers can even use Google translate to help themselves with tricky foreign language passages.

    I feel that if I translated everything in footnotes or in the body of the work, it would not be a novel any longer, but some kind of scholarly work. But it could be that I limit my audience to people who are willing to put up with an occasional paragraph or sentence in a foreign language.

  11. I don’t know of any aspects of my stories that the reader cannot understand. With the way I usually write stories, I have to explain to myself what’s going on.. so it doesn’t take much for me to enlighten the reader with a simple sentence or two.

  12. @Traci: Fantasy brings a whole new set of challenges to the table, since we can’t take for granted that the reader will understand anything – as we might, say, in a historical.

    @Aya: As a reader, I actually find the challenge and success of translating (however ridiculously easy thanks to technology) to be extremely satisfying. I’m sure not all readers appreciate the challenge (in fact, I know they don’t), but there are definitely total nerds out there who like having to translate the foreign bits.

    @Gideon: That’s the way it should be. The problems arise when we start taking for granted that the reader knows everything we know but aren’t saying.

  13. Sometimes we tend to assume that readers actually understand more than they do – totally agree with this.

    I think my stories are pretty much understandable by every reader and that’s where my strength lies.

  14. It’s true that some of us are way better at empathizing with the reader than others! Some of us (and I’ve definitely fallen into this trap more than once myself) just naturally assume that what’s clear to us must perforce must be clear to the reader. But readers can only work with what we give them.

  15. My present novel is a time travel historical fantasy novel. The world is a fantasized version of our current world with added countries, new languages, skewed geography, etc. I’ve heard of two different options for introducing new terms to the readers: 1) include footnotes at the bottom of each page, or 2) italicize the words and add a glossary/map in back. Which of these options is better? Or is there a third option I’m not aware of? My main character is a time traveler so she, too, is unfamiliar with the world and some of the terms are naturally explained in the story.

  16. First let me say, I love this premise!

    The third, and best, option is to do your best to make meanings evident through context – as well as including a glossary and trusting readers to find it. Footnotes can be fun and funky, but they only work in certain types of stories (such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Only italicize words if they belong to a foreign language.

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