Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What Color Are Your Reader's Glasses?

We’ve all heard the phrase about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. If you haven’t, you’ve been in your writing cave too long. It’s time to come out. :)

I know it may sound cliché, but I think we all see the world through our own special glasses, colored by our experiences. Whether this makes the lenses blue, green, orange, brown, or pink, we all have our own realities.

I recently changed over my vehicle registration from Arizona to Idaho. In Arizona, you only get one license plate and it goes on the back of your vehicle. In Idaho, you get two—front and back. Since I’ve never had a front plate, I had no bracket, so I headed down to the local auto parts store to purchase one. They didn’t have one that would fit my truck, but the clerk there was nice enough to give me directions to a local junk yard that would have what I needed. Everyone is SO nice here—like going out of their way to be nice kind of nice. Very strange for me. Anyway.

These are the clerks exact directions (as I remember them, anyway): He pointed to the nearest road, “You turn down this road here, and it’s quite a ways down, almost to the end, but they always have the best prices so it should be worth the drive.”

So I’m thinking it’s going to be a fifteen or twenty minute drive. Keep in mind, the Phoenix metro area is over eighty miles east to west and over fifty north to south. I’m used to driving long distances to get places. That’s not even considering that our house there was seven miles from civilization anyway. Here though, the closest store is half a mile from my house, and the entire town couldn’t be more than ten miles east to west. I’m not so sure about north to south, though it couldn’t be that much bigger.

Still, the clerk made it sound like it was SO far. Besides, they have little towns scattered everywhere, and he didn’t specify that it was actually in Idaho Falls, so it was possible that it was farther out. Yeah, well, it wasn’t. I turned the corner, drove two miles and there it was. Two miles. Not even a five minute drive. Like I said, it’s all about perspective.

This got me thinking about how a reader may perceive something in my writing. I’m notorious for being vague about distances and sizes. I’ve been trying to be more specific, but it’s difficult to slip the info in there without it coming across as boring. Besides, I have to wonder if half the stuff is even something my narrator would notice or care enough about to know the exact measurement.

To be honest, my descriptions in general are pretty vague. I’m working on that. That’s my major weak point that I was dying to use that BUT for yesterday. What? Motivational Monday is over. I’m free to be negative again for six more days. :)

So what do you all think? Is it important to be specific about everything in our writing? Or is it okay to be vague sometimes?


  1. I think there are times when you can fudge the facts a little. But it's also important to be as specific as you can, when you can. As writers, we're trying to make our readers believe something that probably never happened. It's easier to believe a lie when that lie is detailed and specific than when it's vague and shady.

    Good post! Got me thinking about my own descriptions. :o)

  2. LOL, "vague" is good for when the facts make sense to the reader. If it's familiar, or known.

    But with sci-fi/fantasy, I feel like the more detail, the better. The reader will be naturally more curious, and their brain is going to make sense of it the best way it can. The more details provided, the less the brain has to fill in the blanks.

    Great post!

  3. I like your analogy with the reader's glasses! Now that I'm a writer I see books way differently than before and I find myself critiquing as I read. My glasses have definitely changed but I'm not sure what color they are :)

  4. I think being specific is goood in some cases, but being vague is necessary sometimes, too. It all depends on the situation, I think. I do find that lack of specificity is the main reason in edits I net ADD words rather than lose them. Every time I cut a paragraph, I end up adding 2 where I realize there's not enough. I wrote a blog a while back dealing with that issue. It focuses on world building, but also talks about how to handle the amount of specifics you need:


  5. Great story. I think that it depends though, on how you write things. What is your focus? Are you focusing on the journey or the character? Does being specific about how far they go or where they go help the reader visualize? Or would it be more appropriate for the character to be thinking about ten different things and barely notice when they arrive at the destination? There definitely are times when being specific is necessary, but it depends on what you're focusing on.

  6. To me if it isn’t important to the plot, it’s okay to be vague, but if it’s a detail that going to pop up again it’s better to be more specific.

  7. I think there is a time for both. Sometimes you need to be specific, but other times it's better to be vague and let the reader come up with their own image of something. By the way, my but yesterday would have also been about description.

  8. That's awesome that everyone's so friendly in Idaho :D!

    Very true about different perspectives. I think my writing glasses are green, because I always visualize rolling hills and forests when I write ;).

    I think there's a fine line between lovely detail and purple prose, so we have to walk it carefully.

  9. I tend to put too much detail in my scenes, and that can exhaust a reader. Vague moments here and there are necessary. (Can you tell I am using my son's keyboard? I keep hitting the wrong keys and having to erase.) Thanks for a great post, Abby! My glasses are light and dark. Maybe lavender and green.

  10. I think subtlety is a dying art. I don't like things being dumbed down. I don't like having every little thing explained to me.
    That said, neither do I care for being confused. I think it's a fine line and beta readers/crit groups can really help you with that part.