Monday, 24 November 2014

The Parts Readers Tend to Skip


One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing was “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Excellent advice that makes very good sense, only exactly which parts are those?

On the surface it would seem obvious—the boring stuff, the longwinded explanations and unnecessary interludes, right? We all know what he meant. But when it comes to recognising the skip-worthy in our own stories it’s never quite so clear cut.

Scenes that are really going nowhere and have no purpose being in the story aren’t too hard to spot, but the bits that are just bland or that we’ve convinced ourselves have to be there for the story to make sense, they can slip through draft after draft.

So how do you spot the skippable parts and skip them before the reader gets a chance to?

The problem is that readers aren’t one homogenous group that agree on one particular approach to writing. You can form an idea of what’s generally considered “good” writing, but like any opinion that comes from consensus what you end up with tends to be somewhat flat and devoid of personality. And even the most widely held beliefs about what is just cringe-inducingly bad prose can be countered with examples from best-selling novels that would make an English teacher throw up in his shoe.

It’s something of a fool’s errand to try and provide all readers with what they want. They don’t all want the same thing, and often they really have no idea what they want until they get it. The first thing to really consider is not the parts readers tend to skip, but the parts you tend to skip when you read.

You can’t distil the world’s tastes and preferences into bite-size chunks (well, not without resorting to being very broad and generic) but you can take your own personal likes and dislikes and use them to inform your writing.

You’d think this wouldn’t be too difficult, after all you know what turns you on and what turns you off. But this information isn’t as accessible as it might seem. When we lose interest in a book, when we skim or zone out and find we can’t remember the last few paragraphs we don’t usually spend time analysing what took us out of the story.

The whole reason you drifted off was because you didn’t want to engage with what was happening on the page, all you want to do is move on to the next good bit, so why would you waste another second thinking about it? Your instincts told you to skip it, so that’s what you do.

But as a writer it’s very useful to take a moment to assess an unappealing section of an otherwise enjoyable read.

Bear in mind that just because you didn’t like that part doesn’t mean others won’t. There will always be fans of what you consider to be dull and turgid, as there will be critics of the stuff you consider great. That’s not important. You can only write from your own perspective, and it’s that perspective that will give your writing its voice. Your voice.

There can be the temptation to hide behind some kind of false modesty. Who am I to decide what’s good or bad? Well, you’re the author and you better be the one to decide because that’s what draws people to fiction. The storyteller isn’t just the messenger, he’s also the message writer.

Asking others to read and critique your story will help, but more for the general things. As soon as you get down to the more questionable elements, the parts where you aren’t sure if they work or not, other people’s opinions are just that, opinions. And if you’re going to make a decision based on taste it should be your taste.

So look at your story with a dispassionate eye, be objective about the technical aspects, the spelling the grammar, the structure, but also consider whether you personally would be interested in reading it the way it’s written.

Never mind if you consider the scene to be essential or irreplaceable, if it was in a book you were reading would you be rushing to turn the page or savouring each word in anticipation of what would happen next? If you feel ambivalent about it, as you often will, isn’t not being convinced the same as not being engaged?

Rather than hope that even though you’re not really excited about it maybe someone else will be, if you take your uncertainty as a signifier that what you’ve written would be skipped by you as a reader, then take it out and trust yourself to be able to write something better.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

13 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If it slows you down, you have to assume it will slow others down. If we're writing what we read, then fans of that genre probably feel the same way.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

You know my favorite rule...

mooderino said...

@Alex - definitely helps to read the genre you write. Hopefully that's the reason you started writing in it.

@Mac - actually it was your last comment that gave me the idea for this post (I need all the help I can get).

Lexa Cain said...

Great advice! I skim a LOT when I read and try to keep the pace up in my own writing. Not always easy when you know you need to put things in to set up future events, but readers don't.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I agree with you, while reading my own manuscripts whenever I feel that my reading is slowed down I need to either delete those parts or make them interesting in some way, else I know that the readers will stop reading.

Lynda R Young said...

Trusting our instinct is the best advice when it comes to writing. We know we skip those boring bits in our own writing, so they really should go.

David P. King said...

You have to keep things moving and never stay in one place too long. Even shifting the location in a scene helps. That's how I like to approach my writing, anyway. :)

Lady Lilith said...

Makes sense. If you want more readers, you need to cater toward a large group of likes and dislikes.

Lily Wilson said...

The descriptions of nature are almost always the parts to be skipped. Especially if they are long and do not serve any particular purpose (to add suspense, for example).

mooderino said...

@Lexa -it's not easy to play the part of reader for your own writing.

@Rachna - me too, although I have to usually remind myself that sort of okay isn't good enough when my lazy brain wants to let things slide.

@Lynda - I find it also helps to remember you can come up with something better because you have before.

@David - if you keep yourself interested I think there's a good chance you'll do the same for the reader (hopefully)

@Lilith - catering (honestly) to your own likes and dislikes is probably more important.

@Lily - long descriptions of anything tends to get old fast, in my experience.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Such good advice, and so hard to implement when we're judging our own works. I like using a non-writer as a beta reader for exactly this reason.

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