Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

Elmore Leonard famously said this about his writing success: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” I used to think his insight fell into the category of advice that sounds easy but is actually hard as hell to put into practice, along with nuggets like “Buy low, sell high” and “Just do it.” Yes, yes, but how?

Eventually, though, I realized that there’s a valuable subtext to Leonard’s comment — you’ve gotta read. When you read frequently and widely, you come to know instinctively which parts people skip, because you know where you start to get bored and flip pages in search of a good part. As a writer, stop right there and look at what made you start flipping pages. Is it a long block of dense description? An internal monologue that goes on for too long? A stretch of dialogue that feels more like throat clearing or exposition than a legitimate exchange? Even a sex scene can slow down the plot’s momentum if that scene appears in the wrong place.

Most writers love to read. It’s what makes them want to write in the first place. Occasionally, though, in workshops and writing groups, I’ve come across aspiring writers who don’t read, or who don’t read the kind of books they’re trying to write. I sympathize. People are busy, and it’s hard enough to carve some writing time out of an already-packed day. But reading is essential to any writer’s career. It helps writers develop an ear for dialogue, a sense of pacing,  a feel for character development.

And it shows you, as nothing else can, which parts people skip.

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About nancyholzner


5 responses to “Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

  • Jack W. Regan

    Good post! And excellent advice, too.

  • MJ

    Great advice, Nancy. It’s true that many of us don’t read enough of the kinds of works we try to write. Thanks always for sharing your lessons. I’m so glad you have this blog!

  • Brenda

    Really useful post. I’ve heard this quote before, but thinking about it in practical terms–as in something actionable I can discover in my reading, then avoid in my writing–is very helpful. Thanks!

  • Rebecca

    The most sensible starting point for a writer – to be a reader. Congratulations on your upcoming book release.

  • Ravenne

    Nicely said, Nancy. When I hear a writer say he/she doesn’t have time to read, I can barely keep from groaning. These are the same writers who come up with ideas that they believe are unique, but which have been done many time overs. For instance, one classmate of mine said he had a wonderful idea and would I please read 100,000 words of it? When I asked for details, he said that it was about a guy who has his hand cut off in an accident. The hand proceeds to crawl about murdering everyone in the hospital because it’s mad it was abandoned.

    Um…I remember a move, maybe several movies with that same general idea. What really impressed me was how sincere he was about his claim.

    Okay, maybe he had a unique twist to offer. I don’t know. I had to pass on the work because I couldn’t dedicate the time needed to do the job.

    But this has happened several times and each time I have to wonder why the writer refused to read. Even the great artists were tutored before they achieved fame.

    Ravenne

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