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.