If You Have to Explain It, Something’s Not Working

The other day, Writer’s Digest tweeted the following:

“If it needs explanation, it’s not working. #writetip”

It’s such a simple statement, and so true. If your query or sample pages bring up the kind of questions that confuse readers instead of intriguing them, something’s not right. I’d also reverse it and say that if someone tells you something’s not working, there’s a good chance it’s because you haven’t explained it or set the stage well enough in the manuscript itself. Here are my thoughts on how to approach questions on queries, samples, and submissions.


Ah, queries. They have to accomplish so much in such a brief space. And they’re always confusing on the first try. Really. Always. If you can write a first draft of a query and no one has any questions about it, I salute you. No, actually, I think your nose is growing …

But back to the real world–here’s my advice on answering questions about your query. If you’re posting on a public forum, resist the urge to go into long explanations. It will just drag you deeper and deeper until commenters have you bloating your query with too much information. I’ve been down this spiral of questions leading to more questions in the past, and it’s dangerous. The best use of a public forum is to gather the questions, revise the query so any that need to be answered are, and post a new version. Repeat until the questions you’re getting are the kind that make them want to read more.

Getting feedback from trusted readers and critique partners is a different matter. They’ve either read the manuscript that goes with the query or have read my work in the past and so are invested in my success. In those cases, I will give explanations and ask for their opinion on how to address those questions in the query. I’d rather leave those in-depth discussions for people I know and use public critiques to figure out what doesn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t know me or my story. That’s just my personal philosophy, so take it for what it’s worth.

First page/chapter/etc.

It’s very possible questions you get about your first page or any other partial sample will get answered later in the manuscript. However, that doesn’t mean you should discard them. The trick is being able to discern whether the question is rooted in anticipation of what’s to come or confusion about what’s happening now. If your explanation is, “You’ll find out in the next chapter,” then you can probably set the question aside. If, on the other hand, you have to go into an elaborate explanation in order for a single paragraph to make sense, you probably need to go back and fix something. So pay attention to questions you get here, but keep in mind you don’t have to answer them yet if you’re planning a reveal later in the story.

Full manuscript

Unless you’re writing a series, all the major questions should be answered by the time you type “The End.” If someone reads your whole manuscript and still has questions about what happened in the story, there’s probably something missing. Some piece of information you didn’t plant well enough or that you glossed over without giving it the attention it deserved. Sometimes mentioning something once isn’t enough. And sometimes we get caught up in our own stories and don’t realize the explanation that’s perfectly clear in our heads never made it onto the page.

Also be aware of the unspoken questions that are presented as statements like: “I didn’t buy this” or “I didn’t believe the MC would do that.” They’re really asking “why,” and that’s a question you do need to answer. If a reader calls you out on something they didn’t understand–a character’s motivations, the way something played out–you didn’t sell it well enough. It’s easy to get caught up in what you know about your manuscript and respond with: “But didn’t you see where I said such and such on page 200? That totally explains it.” Well, if the reader mentioned it, obviously it didn’t. I’m a strong believer in figuring out why something doesn’t work rather than trying to convince someone that it already does. So I’m more likely to ask more questions about their questions than to try and explain. Sometimes that involves explaining what I was trying to do to figure out why it didn’t work, but we’re already at the level of trusted reader of CP, so I’m ok with it there. That way I can get to the root of the problem and figure out how to revise in a way that resonates with the story I want to tell. And hopefully when the next person reads the manuscript, those questions won’t come up again.

So here I’ve rambled on, all because of a random tweet I saw the other day. What do you think? Are you in the camp of wanting to explain or would you rather just fix it? It’s entirely possible I’m alone in my approach :).

Responses to “If You Have to Explain It, Something’s Not Working”

  1. Jess Lawson

    This is so wonderfully, frustratingly relevant to the MS I’m working on 🙂 Sometimes it’s harder than you think to weave in the explanatory details that are in your head that didn’t get translated to the page. Thank goodness for CPs who will point out those gaps!

    • Michelle I. Mason

      Yes, why can’t they all just get inside my head with me? 🙂 Whenever I’m tempted to move forward after revisions without having someone else check behind me, this is what I have to remind myself of. Good luck with your MS!


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