How attention to detail can hurt your writing abilities

There’s an embarrassing mistake I see a lot of writers making with their fiction. It’s a simple fix, but it may not be the easiest thing to do.

In this article, I am going to break down what this problem is and how to address it. Now depending on your style of writing, you may agree or disagree with me.

Doesn’t matter — this is taken directly from my personal experience.

Why I’m glad I’m a “careless” writer

Right now, I am in the process of editing my most recent draft of my fantasy novel.

There are plenty of grammatical mistakes. One of the biggest problems I keep seeing, again and again, is I use “women” and “woman” interchangeably. I think the reason I do this is that both words actually sound the same, even though one is referring to a group and the other an individual.

My novel, at this point, is riddled with stupid mistakes like this.

Too many commas, the odd weird sentence, a piece of dialogue that says something the reader already knows.

And the thing is I am glad that I am having these problems. This is a good thing because I have far less problems where it really counts, the story.

A story isn’t in the writing

One of the things that you need to learn if you want to craft excellent stories is this truth. As much as I love writing, I know that the writing isn’t actually the story.

Words are like a window-glass, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, and the story exists behind the glass.

In my mind, the story is visual, emotional, and I subjectively experience it as if I am living it. Words are just the means by which I try and share that experience with the reader.

So, as I am editing this novel, what I am paying more attention too is the story. Is the living entity that is my story okay? Are there areas where it needs to be changed or improved? Is this thing pulsing with life, filled with emotion, and packed with powerful visuals?

These are the questions I ask myself before I even look at doing the small shit editing stuff like commas and proper nouns and whatever else.

The one unexpected thing you can do to write better stories

Since we have that established, it’s time to talk about what you can do to write better stories.

Understand that attention to detail will actually make you a worse storyteller. To write better stories, you must be able to step back and look at the big picture, to sperate the trees from the forest.

The embarrassing mistake I was referring too before that I have seen a lot of authors make is the failure to actually complete a story before they begin editing.

It’s comically sad to see a book that’s perfectly edited, with a beautiful cover design, that’s dead boring. You read the first page and wonder why on earth did the author think this book was ready?

It isn’t in the grammar and it isn’t in the spelling

People who obsess over detail have a serious disadvantage when it comes to writing great stories.

To go back and comb a draft for commas, spelling mistakes, and other misuses of language is important. Yet that comes after the story has been established.

Let me ask you this: How good is a car without an engine?

Say you have a beautiful sports car that’s been waxed, shined, cleaned and smells as if it has just been rolled off the assembly line.

This same car has comfortable seats, all the latest safety features, an in-car computer, and the best quality speakers.

How useful is this car going to be if it lacks the engine?

The reason that some people are able to publish objectively awful books on Amazon that are riddled with mistakes, stupid clichés, awkward sentences etc is that they got one thing right. The story.

While I might not read it, there are plenty of people who share that interest in the niche who are very willing to overlook mistakes and shortcomings for the sake of the story.

It’s like an old beat-up car that’s missing one seat and has a hole in the windshield that still has an engine in running order. It’ll outperform the perfect sports car that can’t be driven.

Stories are by nature BIG PICTURE

When writers obsess over the small stuff before they have managed the big stuff, they are making it very hard for their story to ever reach full maturity.

In my younger years, I actually never got to the point of needing to edit my novels. When I wrote them, the story flaws in them were always so big that they justified by scrapped and restarted.

There’s no point to fiddle around editing when the entire story needs to be chopped and restarted.

No… because while editing is important, it should only be implemented late in the game.

I say that stories are naturally big picture because the way human beings process the world is through the lens of storytelling.

The way we consume our perception of the world is through the view of story. We’re the mistreated protagonist at work who doesn’t get recognition, we’re the budding hero at the gym who’ll go from skinny guy to the warrior packed with muscle.

The reason I am pointing this out is to make clear this is where the power is. The reason a reader will pick up your book is for the story. No for the gramma. Not for the fluffy sentences. No for the correct spelling or the properly spaced paragraphs. FOR THE STORY.

How to know a piece of work is ready for editing

The way I have been able to tell that my writing is ready for small detail-ordinated editing is when I am sufficiently “wowed” by the story.

My process is that I will write a draft of a book, leave it for a few weeks, then reread it.

Most of the time, when I reread it, it’s a little painful. There are moments of greatness, but most of the time it’s obvious the story isn’t quite there.

Character motivation seems off, little things don’t make sense, a whole plot point is stupid etc.

By the time I am finished reading it is pretty clear what needs work.

The sign that it is time for editing is when I go through this process, after however many drafts, and I hit a stage where I am gripped by my own story.

Stuff makes emotional sense, the structure comes together beautifully, the characters seem alive and their motivations make sense, the story’s pace hits all the emotional buttons, and overall, I am overwhelmed by an awesome experience.

That was the case with the most recent draft of this novel, which was a big sign to me that it was time to start worrying about the small stuff.

The five questions

I realize my way of figuring this out may not be that useful to you, because basically I am relying on the “feeling” of the story, rather than any objective means.

Nevertheless, there are five questions you can ask yourself as you review a draft to decide if you need to be working on the story or working on editing.

Here they are:

These five questions are useful because they’ll give you a general idea of how you are getting on with your story.

The last one is especially important. While of course, the author is willing to give up a lot for their “baby,” readers are not. Readers care only about what a book can do for them.

This is a point I talk about expressly in my guide, the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Writing Fiction.

The guide is about seven big things that a lot of writers assume, that are actually very dangerous to your ability to tell good stories. My writing improved dramatically whenever I overcame one of these assumptions.

You can get it here if you’re a writer yourself and you want to boost your storytelling ability.

Originally published at on January 10, 2019.

The guy behind, the website for serious storytellers who want level up their fiction-writing ability.

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