Pitfalls of Writing Tight

We are constantly told to write tight. No unnecessary words. Story as iceberg. Kill our darlings. Et cetera. You know, the Elmore Leonard school of writing.

And this is something I’ve taken to heart as I’ve tried to further my craft over the years. I like to think I’ve developed a spare style for myself. Which also may have evolved out of my experience writing flash fiction in one of my early writing groups. Still, I try to write tight, no matter what project I’m working on.

But sometimes this hurts me.

A long time ago, I wrote a post on how I have to write in layers, starting with a skeleton of action and dialogue and layering in all that other stuff that makes for a coherent and satisfying story.

Once I have a sense for my story, I’m eager to get it all down on the page and move on. I know what my characters need to do, when, and how. And then try to convey that as efficiently as possible.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Because I’ve already figured out what happens, there’s not always enough of an intellectual challenge to flesh the story out. Another reason is that there’s always another story jumping up and down in the back of my brain, waiting for its turn to be written. I have to take care to manage both of these impulses since I’m writing for publication, which requires a higher level of storytelling from me than if I were writing for my own entertainment.

Writing tight is great for controlling a story’s pacing. But if I’m too thin on the details, the character insights, the scene setting, and so on, I often rob my story of its full potential. So I have to spend a significant amount of time lingering over my scenes to ensure they are fully realized without slowing things down. And I often rely on my CPs and trusted readers to figure out what the right balance is.

Plot complications are another area I have to watch out for. After all, why delay the inevitable? I already know what happens in my stories, and complications just muck that up. But it’s also those complications that ratchet up tension and make the story’s climax awesome (or at least they should contribute).

There’s a reason I’ve stayed away from writing mysteries and suspense novels. So many of those stories rely on misinformation and red herrings to carry the story until the real plot is revealed at the three-quarters mark. And it’s hard for me to justify spending so much time developing irrelevant plot threads, when there’s a real story to cover. But I guess that’s just another writerly flaw of mine.

So while my craft has definitely benefited from learning to write tight, there are some pitfalls:

  • Write too sparely, and you risk confusing your reader. 
  • Write too lean, and you rob your story of its full emotional impact. 
  • Write too tight, and you could ruin the journey for the reader.

How do you strike that balance between tight writing and fully realized stories? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

7 thoughts on “Pitfalls of Writing Tight

  1. Laura Lee Nutt says:

    Great point. I tend to tighten after I write a first draft. Then, in later edits, I flesh out details and layer more. But I have found that sometimes, in the effort to write tightly, I hurt the story just like you said.

    For a new writer, I would definitely recommend the write tight focus. However, these are important points to remember, especially for writers with more experience.

  2. Annalise Green says:

    I have that same problem, I think because there is so much advice about killing your darlings and ect. However, that means that my stories aren't always as realized as they could be. Like you, I have to rely on feedback to gauge my balance of plot-tightness with reader immersion.

  3. Deborah Walker says:

    Interesting. I naturally write very tight, skeletal really. And it takes me about 5 passes to add enough stuff in to make it readable.

    Pacing is an interesting craft. I just read Lovecraft's 'Whisperer in the Darkness' a novella that couldn't be described as tight in any way. And yet it works. hmmm, food for thought.

  4. SA Larsenッ says:

    You really did hit it head on. In writing our tales, as in every other aspect of life, balance is needed. Now finding that balance is another story. lol

    (Thanks for stopping over on my site and congratulating me. I really appreciate it. Following you now.)

  5. Terry Odell says:

    I think you can write “tight” while still covering all the requisite plot details. I do write mystery and romantic suspense, but I don't plot in advance. As I go, I tend to make sure each scene raises questions that need to be addressed down the line. In fact, each sentence needs to lead to the next one; I find if I need to add more, it's hard to find the right place to sneak it in.

  6. Hydro Blogger says:

    As a writer with too many science degrees, I had 'write tight' drilled into me for preparing journal manuscripts. I've rebelled to some extent by writing lush for fiction/memoir – then going back and tightening up during editing as required. Turns out that I avoid writing tight because of its associations with my science…

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