It’s a crazy hypothetical, but let’s say you could only give one piece of writing advice, and the advice had to be expressed in a single sentence.
Based on where we are along our trajectories as writers, each of us would choose differently. In large part because of the developmental editing assistance I render, my current choice is this pithy line from Eudora Welty:
“You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much at once.”
Like never, all is an absolute, and absolutes are best avoided unless you’re speaking for effect, as Welty is here. We never really know all about anything. Besides, as E.L. Doctorow said, writing is like driving at night in the fog. You only see as far as the headlights, but you keep looking and driving and eventually you’ll make the whole trip.
Layer Welty’s advice into Doctorow’s metaphor, and you get this: You must know all within the space illuminated by the headlights. Know all the details that make up the scene, all the sights and sounds and smells, zoomed in and zoomed out. Know the characters—who they are, what they think, what they feel, where they’ve been, where they’re headed, what they know about themselves, what they’ve yet to discover, their triumphs, their failures, their motives, their potential, their misbeliefs. Know how one thing leads to the other, the chain of causes and effects on which stories rely.
But you never tell all you know. You withhold. Understanding that readers long to engage in your story, you offer sufficient detail to ground them, to ensure they suspend disbelief. The rest you parcel out strategically, knowing that readers need tension to keep them engaged. You drop breadcrumbs that show them the way.
Some of what you know never makes it onto the page. But you still need to know it, because knowing makes your story real and full and true. Much of revision involves sifting through what to tell and when. The more you write, the more you develop instincts for knowing and telling. Even so, there’s always more to discover. You think you’re finished, and then you see what you missed. Sometimes you’ll add to what you’ve told—and always, the placement is strategic. Sometimes you’ll just know it for yourself.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds”; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon.