Writers Beware: Micro-managing

Since it’s August, I thought it might be good to trot out some easily avoided fiction mistakes I see in student work. Micro-management is what I call the tendency to over-regulate how readers experience a scene or description.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three simple fixes for eliminating
micro-management from your writing:

My Right or Yours?

You’re reading along, when the author tells you that a
character picked up something with his right hand or looked to his left. Unless
you’re into biblical comparisons (where the right and left hands are
significant), directing readers to imagine a certain limb, direction or
movement can quickly confuse. I immediately think, “Does it mean my left or is
it a mirror image because the page faces me?”

It sounds silly, but unless a writer needs a reader’s specific attention to a direction or hand, it’s safe to omit the information. Just write, “He picked up (the object),” or He glanced at (the object)” and leave out whether it’s left or right. If you micro-manage, readers will have to stop and figure out what the author wants them to see. The point is that by making sure readers imagine the scene exactly as you the writer, you limit readers’ ability to experience the story in a fluid way. It’s okay to allow your readers to imagine the scene in their own way.

Comparisons

Another form of micro-management is in the use of comparisons for size. If you write, “Johnny’s backpack was twenty-four inches long,” the same reader-pause is likely as readers visualize twenty-four inches. In most cases, a better way to describe size is through a familiar comparison. If Johnny stands on an eight-foot boulder, readers must stop to think about the length. But if Johnny stands on a boulder the size of a Volkswagen, we get an instant picture.

When describing objects for readers, go for the familiar. I like to tell students a story about a mom who writes about an incident with her toddler, who put alphabet magnets into the hot oven. When the mom writes her story, she changes the magnets to a blue plastic duck. Why? The alphabet letters could be any one of twenty-six, and those magnets usually come in several colors. By giving readers a concrete, familiar object, the mom eliminates the readers’ need to process the entire alphabet. Instead, a simple image serves the story: that the toddler put plastic stuff into the oven and made a stinky mess.

Details We Already Know—or Don’t Care

When it comes to stuff readers have already been told, micro-managing
details goes beyond confusion to irritating. If the story is about a kid who is
given an important object by his now-deceased grandfather, once we know this,
there’s no need to keep repeating that this is what Grandpa gave to him.

Readers will chafe if they suspect that the writer doesn’t
trust them to remember what they should. By repeating obvious information, writers
imply that a reader can’t visualize what’s happening. Consider a scenario where
a character is leaving for work:

He poured the last of his coffee down the drain and
grabbed his keys. He used his keys to lock the front door of the house and
walked down the house’s driveway. Stepping into his car, he looked back at the
house. The house’s front lawn needed mowing.

Readers understood from the beginning that the character was in his house. There was no need to mention the word house again, and once we see the keys, we understand they are used to lock doors.

Micro-managing doesn’t usually add to a story—in fact, it
can confuse, stop and even annoy readers. Practice writing scenes with a looser
hand, allowing your very smart readers the leeway to imagine your story on
their own terms.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

13 comments on “Writers Beware: Micro-managing

      • You are welcome. I had to pull back for a short time because of an urgent proofreading deadline. I have started a new page on my website, Highly Rated Blogs, as a resource for writers. This blog will be listed. The offer to be a guest author on my website stands, I am now averaging 450 to 570 unique views a day, a few times I have gone over 600. I don’t need unique material also.
        I like to share good information.

  1. Yes! (Exclamation point intentional.) Thanks, Linda. I so agree with most of what you say here, especially the mention of excess staging and exact measurements. Your Volkswagen-sized boulder is genius, encompassing both size and shape.

    I prefer three mentions when it comes to important details, though. In a novel-length work, a reader might forget the significance of Grandpa’s gift. Referring to it three times throughout the book will provide a necessary reminder. But reminders in every chapter? Three thumbs-down.

  2. I had prostate surgery in June. I have finally been released back to daily activities by my doctor. I am feeling fat and lazy, time to get into some other kind of shape. I wasn’t allowed to exercise for three months.

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