Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).
What to leave out
“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.
“Writing is selection,” declares McPhee, who these days also teaches creative nonfiction at Princeton. He quotes his own message to a student: “From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.” And quickly he goes, as we sort of have to in talking about this, to Ernest Hemingway, who famously compared his approach to writing fiction to an iceberg — which moves mostly underwater, unseen on the surface.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them,” Hemingway writes in, and McPhee quotes from, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway also called this his “Theory of Omission,” and McPhee says it “seems to me to be saying to writers: ‘Back off. Let the reader do the creating.’”
I think this is the crux. Like McPhee on Time magazine, his first writing job, and almost certainly like Hemingway on the Toronto Star, early in my newspaper career I learned (and this is the only time I’ll ever appear in a sentence with those two guys, so please don’t mind if I enjoy it) that you almost always — okay, maybe you always — will improve a draft by going through and taking stuff out. You usually do this because you have to, you’re told to, and that’s how you learn.
On Time this was called “greening,” I learn from McPhee: you were told to remove a certain number of lines from a piece you thought was finished, marking the galley with a green pencil so Makeup would know what to cut. On the Boston Globe we were just told to cut a certain number of lines, but the task was the same — and you complained, you climbed the walls, and then you saw that your precious piece was now better.
So I always have a stage, in all the revising and rewriting, when I go through and make myself ruthlessly cut, trim, remove. But wait, that’s not really the crux. The center of why this matters, why it’s so powerful to leave stuff out, is that any piece of writing is aimed at the mind and imagination of the reader. It’s not about the words on the page; it’s about what happens inside the reader as he/she reads the words.
“Let the reader do the creating,” McPhee writes, and I love this. Hemingway called it making an experience. McPhee says, “To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words or images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space ... Let the reader have the experience.”
When we write to be clever, to impress, we are really writing for ourselves. We want this to reflect well on us, and so our stuff just can’t be very good. When we focus entirely on what happens inside the reader, then we have the chance to be working for real. “If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader,” McPhee writes, “get lost.”
That’s the secret, if there is one. But I can’t end this without also sharing my favorite thing in McPhee’s essay — a quote he shares, later on, from the script to the rock movie “Almost Famous”: “It’s not what you put into it. It’s what you leave out ... Yeah, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
Now that I have to think about.