Less is Way Too Much: A Lesson on Specificity in Plotting

When my American Literature professor assigned us our final paper, her advice was to make our argument as specific as possible. For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman was completely out of touch of the undergraduate reality because there was no way a narrow argument would fill up that many pages.

Not that what I thought mattered because this paper had to be written come hell or high water, and as the deadline loomed, the water was rising up around my shoulders.  So, okay. Let’s try the out of touch professor’s advice. For grins and giggles.  Picture me then, a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning. 

In a fit of indignant pique, I made the following argument (in the spirit of being as specific as it was possible for me to be in my panic-fueled state):

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.

(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Okay, now what? The 8-page quota loomed ever larger, like a demon growing stronger the more it feeds on my panic.

What happened still amazes me to this day.

The thesis is essentially three claims, each of which I had to set up and defend: 1) criticisms of disorganization and lack of meaning, 2) the interpretation of the mutiny, 3) how the interpretation fits the novel as a whole.

Having actually read the book (God help me), I started to realize how long it would take to set up and defend these points. Suddenly 8 pages had shrunk to maybe not being enough?

Who’d have thought specificity would strengthen my argument? Not I, that’s for damn sure.  After five hours in the library, my 7-page long paper was concise and well-structured. And I got that paper back with a beautiful red “A” on it.

part ii.

Okay, confession: I sprawl. I’m a sprawler. I lounge languorously from page 1 until I run out of steam and collapse, exhausted, around halfway through the manuscript because my arms just can’t juggle that many subplots and extraneous “character building” scenes anymore.

I wasn’t pleased with my external plot of my current manuscript because of this reason. It lacked cohesiveness. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done and it all ended up at my feet in a soupy, gloopy mess.

Enter specificity in the form of a mentor from my MFA program.

Explaining my problem to him, he nodded, his mouth scrunched, disappearing into his beard as he thought a moment. Then, “Why don’t you do [insert very simplistic but brilliant idea for external plot here]?” he says, very nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just possibly fixed a problem I’ve been having with this book for years.


In the space of, oh, two seconds, I had a single cohesive line of thought that I could hook into my internal plot and instead of my characters wandering around like lost little lambs whose shepherd was directionally challenged, they were charging like Braveheart warriors in a straight line right towards an end goal that actually made sense.

Specificity, my friends. Specificity is where it’s at.

5 Tips to Immediately Improve Your Writing


Today, I want to share with you the advice I wish I’d gotten when I was sixteen and struggling with my writing.  By the time I was sixteen, I’d been writing for five years but didn’t feel any more confident in my writing than I did when I first started and I didn’t know how to get any better.

Here you are, sixteen-year-old Jean.

1) Take a closer look at your dialogue tags: avoid the inherently obvious ones

One thing that immediately screams amateur is this:

“Go right!” she bellowed.

“Right?” he repeated.

The dialogue tag “repeated” tells me that the writer isn’t paying enough attention to their words, because “repeated” in a dialogue tag is inherently redundant.  At best, it slows down the reader because it’s dead weight.  At worst, it shows the writer isn’t paying close enough attention to the words they use, and why should I, the reader, pay attention to your words if the writer isn’t?

In general, dialogue tags operate most effectively when used simply.  Lean on the “invisible said” and consider carefully when deviating from it.  Do you need to say they “shouted” if there’s an exclamation point at the end of the sentence?  Do you have to emphasized that they “cried” if they’re wiping tears away?

Here’s author Laura Whitcomb on literal substitutes:

Screamed, cried, shouted, yelled, called, whispered, hissed, and laughed can work well if they are used literally.  If a character screams a word, such as her child’s name, because she sees him about to run in front of a car, it might work.  But if a character is simply annoyed at another character and screams, “I told you before, I can do it myself!” it will probably come across as bad writing.  Remember to be frugal with said substitutes.  Don’t overuse them or you’ll slow down the story.

Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb

This is where “show, don’t tell” actually comes in handy, because you can usually replace a non-said dialogue tag with a description that conveys the same information more deeply and smoothly.

2) Dialogue tags, cont.: try an adverb or two

I know that adverbs are the plague of writers everywhere.  But I am not of the mind that adverbs can never be used.  I think, used purposefully, they can be useful shortcuts when the “show, don’t tell” would otherwise slow things down.

When I started rereading Harry Potter as an adult, I realized that J.K. Rowling is wild about adverbs after dialogue tags.  I find that I don’t really mind.  The way she uses them works for me, because if I’m 200 pages into an 800-page novel, I’d rather she got to the point instead of spending twenty extra words to describe just how hysterical Hermione sounded.

Roy Peter Clark urges to use them only to change the meaning of the verb:

To understand the difference between a good adverb and a bad adverb, consider these two sentences: “She smiled happy” and “She smiled sadly.”  Which one works best?  The first seems weak because “smiled” contains the meaning of “happily.”  On the other hand, “sadly” changes the meaning.

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

Do I think you should use adverbs all over the place?  No, because it does reach a point where it’s just lazy and you lose engagement from your reader because you’re telling them everything instead of showing them.  Don’t lean on adverbs just because you don’t want the mental effort of thinking of anything better.  So be aware, be smart.

3) Trim the trimmings: “Kill your darlings.”

Learning to identify the bloat in your writing immediately improves the quality of it.

For example, the original sentence was “Learning to identify where you’re bloating in your writing will immediately improve the quality of it.”  I condensed “where you’re bloating” to “the bloat” and struck “will.”

When a professor told me my story’s style contained a lot of excessive words, my defense was, “But that’s just the character’s voice!” 

Veteran short story writers know how that conversation went.  You can always find words to cut.  Ask yourself the use of each word and if there’s a way it can be said simpler.  We aren’t here to waste a reader’s time. Put in the work so they don’t have to.

You’re making the big swan into a little swan; you aren’t cutting the topiary down.  Get a writing partner or critique group to help you with this.  It’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer.

4) Read your writing aloud.

You may be shaking your head in determined defiance at this idea, but consider the possibility that it helps and that it can help you.

I was once in your skeptical shoes.  “How is that going to help?  I know what it’s supposed to sound like, so I’ll read it the way it’s supposed to be read!”  Or, more vainly, “I hate the sound of my own voice!”

To the first, this is mostly true.  If you’ve gone over a draft a hundred times, your familiarity with the text will come through when you read it.  But don’t underestimate the power of your mouth.  Your mouth is a thousand times more sensitive to rhythm than the little voice in your head.

It’s even better if you read it to someone.  Having someone there who doesn’t know the context and who isn’t familiar with the text doubles the likelihood of catching strange rhythms, sounds, and confusing bits.  It especially helps locating those troublesome, lurking long sentences (which I myself am particularly fond of).  The physical input of breath and muscle will give your editing arsenal more depth.

And to the second, you don’t have to read it to your entire graduating class.  Wait until everyone’s asleep and whisper it to yourself by the light of your phone if that’s what it takes.

5) Identify and diversify your crutch words.

We all have a collection of words that we lean on more than others, that we turn to when we can’t think of any other way of putting it.

The extremely talented Alexis Henderson, my critique partner, loves the word “keen.”  Sarah J. Maas uses the word “spear” in her Court of Thorns and Roses series like there’s no tomorrow.  My current WiP drags the word “unbidden” out of me quite a bit.

Start focusing on the words you keep coming back to, that you find yourself using often.  You may not notice them; this is where a critique partner is handy, because odds are somebody else has noticed them.  (Alexis, for example, wasn’t aware of her obsession with the word “keen” until I pointed it out.)

Crutch words aren’t inherently bad, and use them to your heart’s content while you’re drafting, but be on the lookout as you’re editing, because they’ll make your writing seem contrived.

I hope this was helpful!  Do you have your own writing improvement tips?

Until next time, happy writing y’all!