The “Why Do I Need This?” Check

why do I need this

There are many ways to take a critical pass at your writing to tighten up your narrative and make it more enjoyable for your reader. Asking yourself “Why do I need this in my story?” from a macro to micro level, is one approach.

If you are looking to evaluate your writing, there are many criteria you can use. One simple and powerful approach is to ask, “Why do I need this?

The key word is “why.” You could simply ask, “Do I need it?” The answer should always be “yes,” but here you are going a giant step further. You are asking why. You need to justify. Does it help the plot? Is it an essential clue? Is it a golden nugget of foreshadowing? Is it a red herring? What purpose does it serve? How does it link to other parts of the text? Does it support conclusions you want the reader to make? Incite questions you want your reader to be curious about? Inflame emotions?

The possible justifications are plentiful, but they need to be strong. Passages of text engineered to do double or triple duty are golden. Layer upon layer of meaning will help push readers into suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in your story.

You want everything in your draft to be on purpose and essential to the whole. Start with the biggest elements and work your way down. From the forest to the trees, remembering at all times that it is the trees that make the forest in the first place.

Concept, premise and literary elements

Get all your literary elements (characters, setting, plot, conflict, etc.) sorted first. They build out your concept and premise.

  • Why do I need this character?
  • Why do I need this setting?
  • Why do I need this plot point?

Next you are ready to look at how the literary elements are expressed in the text as it flows over time. This means looking at the structural components of the unfolding of your story, starting with largest down to smallest.

  • Why do I need this chapter?
  • Why do I need this scene?
  • Why do I need this section of this scene?
  • Why do I need this dialogue, exposition, description?

With the primary structural elements justified, focus in further on the optional devices. Even the smallest of cleverly crafted and placed elements can carry huge weight.

  • Why do I need this symbol?
  • Why do I need this metaphor?
  • Why do I need this visual image?
  • Why do I need this joke?

Keep going now using the finest-toothed comb.

  • Why do I need this paragraph?
  • Why do I need this sentence?
  • Why do I need this phrase?
  • Why do I need this word?

You can easily see why you question the big stuff first. What if you meticulously cleaned up a series of sentences only to chuck the whole scene? It is true that editing at the micro-scale can sometimes inspire great ideas that improve your book at the macro-scale, but in general, it pays off to cascade down, not up, the chain.

When everything is necessary

Once you need everything in a draft, it means you have created an intricate nest of links that gives depth. Your text will be rich in evidence that supports the foundational facts of your story. There will be nothing unnecessary. Congratulations.

The heightening, purging, and tightening process will be as good as the “needs” upon which you justify inclusion. If you include something only because you like it, even if it has no relevance to the story, you’re missing the point. If you keep it because you think books of this genre should have this kind of material, you may or may not be on the mark. If you use justifications like, “this is the best show of my tell that the lead character is a great detective,” and your book is the first of a detective series, you are on the right path.

Time allotment

You can take another step by judging each part of a draft for the time it takes to read. Does it deserve its allotted time? Could it be shorter, told more to the point? If you are making a minor point, you might not want to take ten minutes of your reader’s time to do it. Half a minute might suffice.

Great writing is all about the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little, but just right. The longer you take to explain something, the more important the reader will expect it to be. If this expectation is not met, readers will be frustrated. If a huge clue is hidden in the middle of the paragraph in the middle of a long chapter, it will likely be missed. The emphasis is off and all such mismatches lessen a reader’s enjoyment.

The final step

Once your draft contains only necessary passages, you can undertake an enrichment process. You know you need everything you have, you know the amount of time allocated is appropriate and merits its place in the story. Now you can ask, “How could I express this better?”

Now “how” is the operative word of this power question. Perhaps there is a better way to express something, but can you think of it? Many writers fall into an endless editing trap where they repeatedly replace things, but they are only just that — replacements. You want improvement.


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  1. Problem with this is if I cut too much, I don’t see the need for anything! I also have to ask “What is needed? What can add depth, sensory details, emotion, tension?”


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