Only What Sparkles

How do you make large-scales cuts in a nonfiction manuscript? Let's use an example a memoir I edited to demonstrate several tools that you may find useful. The manuscript tells of growing up on a Midwestern farm in a bygone era. The author, knowing that mid-century techniques in agriculture are as foreign to modern-day city dwellers as aquatic life on Mars, listed such practices as seeding, cultivating, and threshing crops as well as farm animals and related topics such as a rural schoolhouse. All of these topics had nuggets of intriguing information, but in the aggregate the manuscript ran to 600 double-spaced pages. A quick check on Amazon showed me that most similar books are barely 300 pages long—or about 400 double-spaced pages. I know that’s about as much as I would want to read.

How do you cut 200 pages? That’s a third of the book. The first place to look is: what are you offering that’s new? In other words, it’s easy to get caught up in cataloguing everything you know about a subject. How much of that information, though, is common knowledge? For instance, the farm memoirist engages my interest when he tells how to collect eggs in a bucket without breaking them, but when he spends several pages on wooden trains, I start yawning. I know all I ever want to know about wooden trains. That’s not unique. You have to regard what you’ve written with a cold eye. Nice that you were involved personally, but are you really telling us something we didn’t know?

A second place to look is: focused writing. If you spend a few pages on a mini tractor that Mom used in the garden, I’ll read it with enjoyment. If you spend a few pages mentioning all of the families you can see from the farm, barely spending a paragraph apiece on each, hardly covering more than their names, what earthly good will that do the reader? The art of storytelling governs the level of interest in nonfiction as well as fiction. If you take the time to delve into details that we can grab onto, we’ll want to find out what happened. If you’re rolling out a list, merely for the sake of pointing out facts, our eyes are going to glaze over. We want the stuff that sparkles in your account. Luckily, that’s easy for you to find. It is the material that you yourself find intriguing.

“The writer who cannot sometimes throw away a thought about which another man would have written dissertations, without worry whether or not the reader will find it, will never become a great writer.”
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Copyright 2019, John Paine

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