Writers in the Storm

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June 21, 2024

Authorsplaining: an Insidious Invitation for Readers to Skim

by Laura Drake

Photograph of a lynx showing his fangs in a very wide-open mouth screaming into a microphone set up.

We’ve all read it. We’ve all written it. The overexplanation. Even published books are rife with it (though I’ll bet, not many bestsellers are.) Is it small? Subtle? Often. But enough of it sprinkled in your writing will invite skimming. And as Margie Lawson says, skimming is death to a novel. She’s not wrong. 

But it’s insidious. There are MANY forms of Authorsplaining, and they creep in when you’re not looking. Here are a few, and how to spot and banish them:

Overdescribing

It’s easy to get carried away with descriptions – you’re seeing it in your head and using pretty words to paint a picture. But if it’s something the reader has seen/knows, don’t go into great detail. You can never describe a sunset over the ocean better than your memory, and your reader has most likely witnessed one (or many.) See how that can invite skimming?

Take for example, a high school dance. You can just sketch in broad strokes the streamers hanging from the gym ceiling…after all, we’ve all been to one, so we don’t need a ton of detail on decorations – just enough to show us they tried to convert the gym to something magical. And that effort always fails, right? Show that. 

There are exceptions to this – mostly in Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Historical genres, where we’re not familiar with the item/scene you’re describing. But still, don’t be carried away, or your reader will lose interest. They didn’t pick up your regency to learn how many spokes make up a phaeton carriage wheel.

Circling back

This is something I see a lot. You say something, then move on, then come back and give more info, then circle back again to the same subject.  This really irritates a reader. They feel like you think they’re not smart enough to get it the first time.

If you find yourself doing this, I’ll bet it’s because you’ve found a better way to say it, the second time. If so, cut the first, or combine the best of both – it’ll be more powerful.

Example:

Sean looks over from where he’s heaving junk out of the closet. “Seriously? We have a houseful of stuff to get rid of, and you want to keep old newspaper clippings? Just trash them.”

Then, a few lines later:

“Do I have to beg you? Please, ditch the newspaper clippings.”

Can you see that the reader knows what he’s referring to, so you can just say, ‘ditch them.’ Or, better yet, just ‘Please.’ Trust that your reader will know what you’re talking about. 

Thoughts

Have you ever felt trapped in a character’s head, and you can’t wait to get out? Most of the time (unless you’re in Hannibal Lecter’s head) I think this is because you’re writing the mundane, everyday thoughts. We have way too many of those in our own heads—we don’t want to read about your character’s. 

I have one rule about this: only show thoughts the reader couldn’t guess! 

Showing then Telling

We could argue all day about show vs. tell, but that’s for another blog. What you never want to do (and I see often) is show AND tell. 

Example:

The author just described a snow-covered landscape outside.

A chill seeped through the glass. Becky rubbed her goose-bumped arms.

The author told, then showed. We know snow is cold. If she has goose bumps, we know it’s from a chill. 

Another:  She was steaming with frustration. He was always late.  “Why can’t you ever be on time?”

Authorsplaining is as irritating to read as it is to hear in real life. It seems hard to notice at first, but once you get used to spotting it, you can’t unsee it. 

Write on!

Your turn. Share examples of authorsplaining from something you're reading or your own WIP.

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About Laura

Laura Drake is a hybrid author of Women's Fiction and Romance. Her debut, THE SWEET SPOT, won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award. She’s since published 10 more romances and four Women’s Fiction. She is a founding member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association and Writers in the Storm blog.

Laura is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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28 comments on “Authorsplaining: an Insidious Invitation for Readers to Skim”

  1. A good post, and valid. It's not something that there are hundreds of posts about, either.

    One thing that happens, is the author gives us an action, performed by the character, then goes on to say 'she said,' after her speech.

    Using your example. She was steaming with frustration. 'Why can't you ever be on time?' she said.

    I find this is quite common in my critique groups.

    Thank you for this reminder.

    1. I hear you! I have never understood why it's so hard for folks to grasp the concept that there's no need for "said" or any other dialogue tag when there's an action attached to the dialogue that clearly identifies the speaker.

      1. You are so right!

        I just checked the second Pride's Children trilogy novel, and the Search function counted 341 instances of 'said' in 187,600 or so words (slightly south of 500 pages).

        I patted myself on the head. 'Said' is used almost exclusively in the relatively few scenes with more than a couple of people at a time and significant goings-on. Too many action tags in such scenes make them clumsy, and a quick 'said' keeps the participants straight in the reader's mind.

        I literally have a vendetta against 'said.'

        First thing that slaps me in the face when reading is the use of 'said' - use a couple of them per page in the first couple of pages, and I'm out of there!

        Thanks for stating it so clearly.

  2. Great post. Yep, authorsplaining can definitely sneak in. When it's most obvious, it can be nearly as annoying as info dumps. *shudder* Both make me, at the very least, roll my eyes. At the worst, I'll start skimming.

  3. I am SO guilty of this in my first drafts. That's because I'm telling the story to myself and it's still mushy and undefined. I'm one of those writers whose first couple of chapters are written for ME...to learn about my characters and setting. All interesting stuff. But most of it can be skipped or sliced-and-diced for use later in the story. Love your insights...always, Laura.

  4. Great examples, Laura, thanks!

    For my historical fiction, several times my editor dinged me for what she called showing my research. I totally authorsplained and had to edit all that out.

    Just because I think something is cool doesn't mean everyone else will.

  5. Oh-oh! Guilty! Hopefully I've caught some of them in later drafts. Some are subtle and some are obvious. Thanks for the reminder and the examples!

  6. Great post, Laura! I see this so often in my clients' books that I hope Margie has cured me of authorsplaining in my own work. I'll have to be watchful.

    Some of the comments are about my least favorite word, "said." In my second immersion class with Margie, she told all of us to circle every "said" in the first fifty pages. I didn't have even one! I agree that word is wasted opportunity.

    Love the cycle! Mine is a 1974 BMW with a sidecar. Almost too hot already in Louisiana to ride much. But it's so much fun!

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