Good writing is about what you leave out

Good writing is about what you leave out

by David Patterson

Let's start the way all writers start—as readers. You're beginning to read a piece of nonfiction about a subject that has aroused your curiosity. The writer of the piece is a guide you've hired to show you the way to some wonderful place at the end of a trail that's not very well marked. The writer's job is to keep you on that trail from point A (start) to point B (finish)—from first sentence to last.

Unfortunately, the writer of the piece you've chosen seems to keep losing the trail. He leads you down one secondary path after another. Those paths, while interesting, don't get you to where you thought you were going. You follow each path till the writer/guide realizes you're not where you need to be. Then he either backtracks or bushwhacks back to the main trail. It's all a bit confusing and tiring.

If that happens enough times, you begin to doubt the existence of that wonderful place at trail's end. You're likely to lose interest and give up on the journey or become so confused you pass by the original destination without recognizing or even seeing it.

Let's change roles

Now you're the writer working on a piece of nonfiction. It's a subject you've thought about and you have a conclusion, a point B, to take your readers to. You want them to see the wisdom of your argument—your premise—and have the evidence that supports it.

I'm an old skier, and one of the first things skiers learn is that every hill has a fall-line—the path a ball dropped at the top of the hill (point A) follows to get to the bottom (point B). The fall-line is determined by gravity and momentum. Skiers are taught to ski the fall-line in order to get the fastest ride down the hill.

Writing to the read-line

To hold readers' attention, nonfiction writers need to do the same. They need to write to the read-line. Just as the fall-line on a hill shows the quickest, surest way from top to bottom, the read-line takes the reader from start to finish cleanly and without impediment. When you write to the read-line, you include all the reasoning and evidence needed to support the conclusion found at point B. What you don't include is anything that does not actively and directly move the reader toward that conclusion. Writing to the read-line gets readers from point A to point B as fast and as assuredly as possible. Side trips are avoided like the plague that they are.

No matter how interesting, sde trips confuse readers, lessen the clarity of premise, weaken the power of conclusion, and damage credibility. The most important thing nonfiction writers can learn is to purge from their writing everything that can be left out without weakening the reader's understanding and acceptance of premise and conclusion.

Articles and books

It's pretty clear how the foregoing pertains to an article written to argue a single premise. But what about a book? Aren't books longer and more complex?

That's what chapters are for. Nonfiction writers should think of the content of each chapter in the way they would if they were constructing an article. Each chapter should be about the journey from its own point A to its own point B. The chapters together then take the reader from the book's point A to its point B.

In short

Nonfiction writers should ruthlessly cut away everything not absolutely necessary to support their conclusion. Extraneous material just gets in the way. It distracts. It causes readers to think about something other than the premise of an article, chapter, or book. Unnecessary exposition is muck that bogs down readers.

Whatever does not pull readers with increasing momentum toward the conclusion pushes them away from it. Nonfiction writing is made worse more often by what is included than by what is left out.

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