Concise. It’s quite possibly my favorite word. I love how it sounds. I love how it looks. And I love what it means.
A Google search brings up: “Concise: giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.”
This is what I strive for in my writing. To be clear without being wordy. To give information with both breadth and depth, without boring the reader. And it’s what I seek to help writers reach as an editor.
Being concise makes your work feel shorter than it is. If you’re writing an 80K word thriller, and it’s concise, people will run through it in just a few hours, and want to start it over. If you’re writing a 400K word Epic Fantasy, being concise will keep them up at night reading. Being concise is one of the key factors to making readers say, “One more chapter!” until the sun comes up.
But how do we make sure that we’re concise? How do we avoid boring readers with extraneous information, and still avoid leaving anything important out? I have a couple of questions that I try to ask myself as I write. They should work for everything from the color of a side character’s hat to the final revelation that turns the story on its head.
First, I determine if what I’m writing belongs in my story at all:
1) Is this information relevant to the plot? Does it become relevant later?
2) Does this information develop character? Does the character noticing this information or their thoughts on it help us to understand them better, or move their arc along?
3) Does this information add color and depth to the world?
The basic three: Plot, character, setting! If the answer to some of these (or even better, to all of these) is yes, I will include the piece.
Second, I determine if the information belongs where it is in the story:
1) How important should the reader think this information is when the characters come across it? This will determine whether to have it in the midst of other information, or out by itself.
2) Is this the only and/or best character to come across this information? If it would be more effective with someone else coming across it, make sure they do.
3) Is this information spaced properly between the previous information and the future information? Are the breadcrumbs laid out in an enticing trail? Are the handholds both close enough to reach, and far enough to progress? More than once, I’ve moved information because it was too close to a previous piece, or too far from the next.
Third, I determine if it’s presented correctly:
1) Is there any way to make this information serve multiple purposes at once? If it’s a plot clue or revelation, let the character’s reaction to it inform the reader. If it’s a character moment, let that tie into theme, or let the character interact with the setting. If it’s setting, let it inform the tone, give it ramifications for the plot.
2) Is the way the information is currently presented the way that will give it the most emotional impact? Even if it is a quiet scene describing a trip through the countryside, does the description of the swaying of dry yellow grass, not with a rustling as it should but instead with a scrape, evoke the suffering that the drought has caused rather than merely that there has been a drought? An explosion in a novel can be either exciting, or funny, or frightening, or saddening, all depending on how it’s described, how it’s framed.
3) Is there a way to shorten the delivery without diminishing its effect? The more you can cut without losing what’s essential, the quicker the story will read, the more people will want the next story or to start the current one over.
Once I’ve done all of this, I know that the information has been presented in the best way possible.