03 Mar How to cut out the boring stuff & be a better writer
When I started off as a journalist I was fortunate enough to work alongside Mick Brown, a brilliant writer and long-time journalist at London’s Daily Telegraph. He’d read my stories and say, ‘Claire, Cut to the chase here.’
What he meant was, get rid of the boring stuff. Tell the story.
Last weekend at my travel memoir workshop one of the participants said, ‘I thought I had to tell everything that happened. Now I realise I don’t.’
That’s right. If nothing happens in a section of your journey – replace this, with your life if you’re writing memoir or your plot if you’re working on a novel – then skip it.
If you need to zoom forward, summarise.
- ‘Two weeks later I was in…’
- Or, ‘A year later, she left him…’
- Or, ‘This happened again and again until the day he learned enough…’
All of these sentences advance the narrative. They move us forward in time or develop character without going into the details.
Because we don’t need every detail, we don’t need to know every person you meet or hear about every experience your protagonist has.
In your writing try and focus on the parts that:
- a) Are most interesting
- b) Are most relevant to your narrative thread
- c) Add to the sort of story you are writing. If it’s funny, include the funniest bits. If it’s thrilling, focus on the edge-of-the-seat moments.
- d) Develop your main characters
- e) Take us to places we don’t know
- f) Tell us something new
- g) Reinforce your theme
- h) Advance the plot
Much of writing is about emphasis. What you choose to bring to the foreground and what you leave in the background. It’s about finding the telling detail to draw the sharpest portrayal of a place or the choice quote that brings to life a character.
But you may ask, how do you know what’s boring and what’s not?
You might not initially. You might have to write a lot and then only when you re-read it do you see where the story drags. In fiction you may need to write into your character to understand him/her. Then you chop that section in your second draft.
This is where you need to have an honest reader, a writing buddy, a writing group.
It’s also practice. The more you write, the more you get attuned to the rhythm of words and how they shape a narrative.
Reading out loud can help. Leaving it for a few days or weeks gives you distance.
It’s at this point that the dreaded ‘inner critic’ that can be so debilitating while we write can actually lend a hand. The critic is often a good editor in the second draft. That’s when you need that incisor part of you to say, ‘This bit has to go, it’s dull.’
And when you cut it, you’ll find it’s liberating. Honestly.