The Making of a Novel: What Readers Skip

11/17/2010 08:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Elmore Leonard famously said, "I try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." I thought of this today, because I hacked some words out of my story.

How do you know what parts to throw away? I have a simple trick I use to suss them out: if I tend to skip them when I'm reading over my work -- to skip to the next paragraph, to gloss over the section, to convince myself that I already know what's in that exchange of dialogue -- then I figure readers are going to skip over them, too.

The alternative goes like this: I read my pages -- even if it's for the forty-seventh time -- and I think,Oh this is great stuff, or I think, I see a way to make this better, or I think, Hey, this connects to something on page 34. I am, in other words, engaged with my own work. If I'm not engaged, then something's wrong.

The truth behind this reality is that in addition to being a writer, each of us is a reader, as well. We can bring our reading skills to bear on our own work, just as we can bring our writing or editing skills. I know what I like when I read a story, and I know what bores me -- even if I'm the writer who happened to create it.