It’s always my favorite thing when the incredible Mandy Keef stops by to talk about all things bookish. Mandy is a full-time technical writer and freelance editor. She’s always there when I get stumped with hyphens. And today, she’s here to teach us how to cut out the fat.
Pick up any book. Go ahead; I’ll wait. Flip to any page. What do you see?
Depending on the time period, genre, and, of course, author, you will (most likely) be looking at long passages of descriptive narrative, long passages of dialogue, or a mixture of both. In the last ten to twenty years, the latter is usually what most authors are going to construct. The benefit of this structure is that it encourages clear and concise descriptions, which prevents readers from getting too bored and allowing them to imagine the scene using their own ideas. As a matter of fact, if you’re an author and have experienced the editing process, you may have come across notes from your editor saying those very things: clean and concise; let the reader use imagination; avoid drawn-out passages to curb boredom. And a good deal of the time, your editor is right.
Because like our world and culture, literature goes through trends, which are a direct result of how our culture has progressed. So what is our culture like right now?
Since 2000, we’ve entered in a global war on terrorism; experienced numerous terror attacks across the world; gone through a recession; the Internet has exploded (MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter—to name a few—all within the last few years); countless natural disasters have killed hundreds upon thousands of people (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires); 3D scanning is building houses, sending tools to space, and generating human organs; national scare of disease (Ebola and various strains the flu); school and public shootings; WikiLeaks; Occupy Wall Street; space…stuff; Putin memes….
Reading that makes it seem like the world is at a state of utter chaos, yes? Enter the explosion of the dystopian novel. (Notice I said “explosion.” There are always dystopian novels, but they have been especially popular as of late, especially amongst the young adult fiction fans.) Our world is moving at a very fast pace, and with all of the information, it is hard to keep up. Because of that, we’ve developed a state of being where we want information quickly and efficiently. We are a society of immediate gratification. We’re not interested in the little details that accompany; and if we get too much information, we quickly get bored, start skimming, or start tuning out.
As an author, you have very few, precious seconds—like, under five—to catch a reader’s attention. Do you want to waste that on a description of a sunset that any reader can generate alone? Gone are the days of Tolkien, Bradbury, Ende, and Wells—and these dudes aren’t that old! But their writing commanded more attention to description than it did dialogue, and most readers nowadays have a hard time holding their attention on the narrative.
So you see, it’s not always that your writing is poor and your descriptions terrible. It’s that your readers no longer have the patience to read what they can imagine on their own. It’s a bit sad, really, but it’s not the final say in the editing process. Sometimes, your editor can be wrong, but the advice usually isn’t from just one instance. If your editor tells you to “trim the fat,” you probably do have too much fat. It doesn’t mean to cut all of it.
My advice: evaluate your book with a critical eye. What narrative passages are important, and which ones aren’t? Sometimes a description carries a lot of weight, and that’s one that will not likely bore your reader. But if it doesn’t add to the storyline, give perspective, or aid in development, then you should consider cutting it.
If that’s still too hard of a decision to make, ask yourself this: Do I want to write glorious, vivid narrative, or do I want to sell books?
Usually, in this day and age, you can’t have both.