Editing: knowing what to cut, what to keep, and when to say, “You’re under arrest.”

Over the weekend I read a post on the website Helping Writers Become Authors. Because that’s what writers do on the weekend. We write, and read, and obsessively study the craft of writing. We also spend hours on social media, and watch football, and nap. But mostly we write and read and obsessively work to improve our craft.

Fine. We also catch up on Denzel Washington movies and episodes of Bar Rescue.

Back to my point. The post I read was Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 37: Unnecessary Filler.

How can you spot unnecessary filler when it shows up in your story? The first symptom is always that it’s boring. If there’s no life in the scene — if it’s high point is just two characters exchanging monotone dialogue about a subject readers either already understand or simply don’t care about — that’s a good sign it’s a bad scene.

Another sign of filler is a scene that’s full of social conventions or routine conversations that readers either participate in themselves in their daily lives or are super-familiar with from television and other books. Personal introductions and daily routines are frequent culprits, but so are court-room rhetoric, the Miranda rights, most political speeches, ordering at restaurants, and chatting with grocery clerks.

I nodded and laughed when I read the part about Miranda warnings. As a suspense novelist, I write plenty of scenes where people tangle with the justice system. As a lawyer, I know something about criminal procedure. As an author who has experience editing my work to get rid of the boring bits — lines and paragraphs and endless meandering pages of it — I have learned to show what’s necessary, and trust readers to infer the rest. Books are not transcriptions of every single moment in the characters’ lives. The author’s job is to select what to portray, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

And while writing The Shadow Tracer, I locked horns with a copyeditor who thought I had forgotten to include necessary information.

(Mild spoilers ahead.)

In the novel, a turning point comes when heroine Sarah Keller is arrested by the FBI. The scene is in Sarah’s point of view, and I designed it so that she doesn’t know who is closing in on her — just that armed figures have risen up in the dusk to swarm her truck. Trying to protect her little girl, Sarah floors it. Then she spots all the cop cars. Outgunned, she stops. A man in a suit appears at her window, pistol raised, and says, “FBI. Don’t move.”

End scene. We next see Sarah handcuffed in the back of an FBI car, being transported to the police station.

I submitted the novel to my editor, who assigned it for copyediting. When I got the manuscript back, the copyeditor had written: “AUTHOR: Does this imply that [Sarah] was arrested? Later on we say she’d been arrested, but we never show that happening. OK as written?”

The copyeditor also questioned later scenes at the police station, asking whether Sarah was actually under arrest — because I had not explicitly included that moment on the page. I thought about it. Had I left the situation too nebulous? To keep readers from being confused, did I need to explain things more thoroughly — for example, by having the FBI agent read Sarah her rights?

I decided: No. All that would have been filler, and would have diminished the impact of the scene.

I replied: “Okay as written. Harker and SWAT went out to arrest her, captured her at gunpoint, and now have her handcuffed in the back of a federal law enforcement agency’s car. In a scene below, Sarah confirms that Harker has arrested her. I don’t think I need to show him actually saying that she’s under arrest.”

My editor agreed. To this day I appreciate that validation.

So, writers: sweep out the filler. Don’t explain just for the sake of explanation, or to up your word count. Trust your readers to fill in the blanks.

Unless, of course, you are actually put in handcuffs by the FBI. In that case, make damn sure they tell you why you’re being arrested, and that they read you your rights.

2 responses to “Editing: knowing what to cut, what to keep, and when to say, “You’re under arrest.”

  1. Nice illustration. Excellent point. Readers are smart.

    Rabbit tracks, rabbit hole. Don’t need the rabbit. – (paraphrased) Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.

    Love this essay. It’s helpful for me today.

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