World-building without info-dumping

World-building is often seen as the province of science fiction and fantasy writers who have to convey new-to-us settings and cultures, and occasionally by historical writers who have to convey the feel of an era that a reader may not know much about. But every story takes place somewhere. Even stories set in a contemporary time period in a city the reader is likely to know require some amount of context. The New York City of a tourist is very different from the New York City of an actor.

It’s up to the developmental editor to help the author find a middle ground between providing too much detail of setting and not enough. Spending too much time describing setting is a type of info-dumping. Maybe the author needs to know it all but the reader probably doesn’t.

Remember that the reader isn’t a complete idiot. They can make inferences and connect the dots. Not only should the author learn to trust the reader but you, as the editor, need to do so as well. That means not necessarily pushing the author to explain what can be gleaned through context and with a little patience (that is, by letting the story unfold).

Suppose the novel you’re editing is set in the future:

Kiara reached for the communicator and buzzed the head luminary.

It’s common for inexperienced editors to be all over that:

AU: What is a communicator? Is it a thing or a person? The dictionary defines a “communicator” as a person, so if it’s a thing please consider using another word. What does it look like? How does it work? Also, can you please provide information about what a luminary is? This is unclear. Consider adding background material to clarify this for the reader.

Give the reader some credit. They can probably figure out that the communicator is a phone-like device. How it works, unless crucial to the story, doesn’t need to be described (you wouldn’t ask the author of a contemporary novel to describe a phone). The reader can also probably figure out from context that a luminary is some sort of boss or important person, and as long as the author explains what one is before the end of the book, it probably doesn’t need to be defined right this minute.

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