Writing Secrets: Cut the crap

 In Tips for Writers

Those who have been on one of our courses will know that one of our favourite mantras is: use restraint.

This is one of those pieces of advice which can take writing from clunky to elegant. When you’ve successfully shown the reader something, don’t tell them as well.

Give the reader the evidence, allow them to work out what it means. The more active you make the reading experience, the more powerful the effect will be.

I was recently trawling through one of those lists that pops up periodically, in which well-known writers are asked for their favourite pieces of advice. I pounced on one by Sarah Waters because it hones in on exactly this issue.

Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: ‘This is where the novel should actually start’.

“A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail.”

Yes, oh yes. I know you’ve spent (or should have spent, if you’ve listened to us) an inordinate amount of time developing your characters, along with their back stories. You’ve carefully developed a life history which motivates their character traits to the point at which the story begins.

The trick is not to tell us. Firstly, we need a lot less than you think. But secondly, what we do need should be fed to us gradually through small details of behaviour, body language and scraps of dialogue or thought.

If you read over what you’ve written and find you haven’t done that, cut it. Be remorseless. As Sarah Waters says: “The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it.”

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Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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