Temptations Writers Face

Writers face many temptations. Unfortunately, yielding to some of those temptations will cause problems with manuscripts. While there are many temptations, only a few are discussed in this post.

Temptation 1: To overuse adjectives and adverbs

Carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs serve to make dull sentences impressive. Conversely, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs often produces lackluster sentences.

The following is a partial sentence from a novel I recently read: “…long black hair pinned back in a bun at the top of her long, slender neck.” The fix for this type of awkward description is to fold details into the moment. How about, “As she removed the pins, her dark hair uncoiled from the bun and tumbled down her back.” (Challenge: Respond with a better sentence.)

Adverbs are overused in everyday conversations, and it’s easy for writers to write what they hear. The fix for overusing adverbs is to choose strong verbs. One might say, “Patricia really likes Persian cats.” Using a stronger verb, this sentence could be written, “Patricia adores Persian cats.” By using a stronger verb, the pesky -ly adverb can be eliminated.

Temptation 2: To over-write

In an effort to construct convincing scenes, writers often “over-write”. Unfortunately, rather than promoting clarity, too many details or too many plot twists can cause confusion for readers.

Some authors over-write when they are endeavoring to meet high minimum word counts set by publishers. It is always tempting to take the easy way out and add minutia rather than expanding and developing the story.

In general, “adding to” causes confusion and boredom, while “subtracting from” leads to clarity and enjoyment.

Temptation 3: To assume readers’ knowledge

When readers are transported to places yet unknown to them, it is important to write in a way that assists them in developing schemas (schemata) needed for story understanding.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998) was, in my opinion, a great read. I could fully appreciate the story because I had an understanding of the era and a good feel for the circumstances that affected the plot. Many who read the book felt that the female characters in the story should have solved the “lack of respect for women” problem. Their judgments were based on the stature of American women in the 1990’s. Had Kingsolver developed concepts with relationship to time, culture, and circumstances, younger readers would have had a better understanding of the characters and the plot.

Temptation 4: To write backstory

Backstory is history. Nothing is more annoying to a reader than suffering through multiple pages of being brought up-to-date on what happened before. Before what? Before anything.

In an effort to clarify, writers are often tempted to educate readers concerning things that happened in the past. An author might present a review of the Civil War or give an account of something that happened during the protagonist’s childhood. If not an integrated part of a story, both are backstory.

Backstory can be presented either as narrative or as dialogue.

(Narrative example from a winter read.)
     “… It was true. A few months ago she had on a whim attended a masquerade party at the church hall, an event held to raise money for the very choir robes to be previewed at the upcoming performance.
     She’d dressed as an angel on a lark. She thought there’d be no harm in going in disguise. She’d donned a gold silk mask and a long, white robe with flowing sleeves bound by one of her gilt-tasseled drapery cords. She’d made ostrich feather wings out of a feather arrangement she kept in an urn near the fireplace.
     From the moment she’d stepped into the hall she’d been uncomfortable.
     When three liquored-up cowhands began to stare, she realized she had made a terrible mistake. She gave them an icy glare and their attention turned to A­­­­­_____. When H___ L______ came to his sweetheart’s rescue, a fistfight broke out. Then La___ slipped out a side door and hurried home.”           

(Dialogue example from a spring read.)
Character 1: Mentions the beauty of the new area where she just arrived.

Character 2: Responds by giving the history of the community (132-words total).
I never figured out why this information could not have been woven naturally into the story.


 Happy writing!

Previous post about my temptation while writing: Gummi Bears and Writing


  1. Good advice, as you are wont to provide. Some famous writer is alleged to have said, "Write your piece; then delete all the adverbs. It will be much improved." So, it could have been Twain, or Hemingway, or E. Leonard. I cite no particular writer; but there are three who where careful of the usage of adverbs.

    "Backstory" has turned me away from some well-known works, especially those that start with 92 pages of it before any "story" begins to unfold.

    1. Vanilla, not going to accept the challenge to write a "better sentence?"

  2. Well, Kris Kristofferson put it in the imperative and divided it into two sentences:
    "Take the ribbon from your hair. Shake it loose and let it fall.'

    1. Vanilla, this seems to be a good way to clarify.