No One Cares About Your Dog: On Cutting Back
April 23, 2013 § 15 Comments
A guest post from Jordan Wiklund:
Unless you’re writing about your dog in some way that’s significant, no one cares about your dog.
Really, they don’t.
This lesson was brought home to bear last week as I struggled to pare down a 2,800-word essay to something I could read in 10-12 minutes at a local Pank invasion of Minneapolis. Up late on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday and Thursday, how the hell am I going to do this was the question I kept repeating as I trimmed a word here, a clause there, but not at the pace I needed. I was nowhere near an essay of manageable length for a brief, boozy reading. The only things I had managed to do was give myself a cold and deplete our stash of wine, whiskey, and Goldfish crackers.
Late on Thursday, though, I was close. I timed myself reading (as all responsible readers should do), and even blazing through it, still clocked in at 13.30, 14 minutes. No good.
I called my wife away from her own work. She was busy charting patients, tracking the health and healthcare of a dozen nameless people, something arguably much more important than, well, listening to her husband navigate through another hurried reading at the kitchen table.
“Take notes,” I said, “tell me what isn’t working.” Dear God let this work.
I read the piece. Rachel had already heard portions of it several times, but I asked her to lock in. As I read, eyes flitting to the timer beside me, she only made a few brief scribbles on a nearby notepad.
“It’s good,” she said, “and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but…” She paused.
“You’re not going to hurt my feelings,” I said. No one knows this better than her.
“Does anybody really, I mean, I know he’s important to you, but does anybody really care about your dog?”
“I-DAMN-WELL-CARE-ABOUT-MY-DOG!” I shouted. An improbable April snowstorm whirled outside, and visions of Tundra, the old family Siberian, danced in my head.
Except I didn’t shout–I didn’t say that at all. She continued, explaining that though she knew and remembered my old husky, as I knew and remembered my old husky, the audience won’t know nor remember my old husky. They won’t know him, she said, so why is he in there? Can you get to the point of that husky-as-lead-in-clause without, well, the husky-as-lead-in?
“Yer darned tootin’,” I said. Cut.
“And the extended subway station description?” Cut.
“And why you’re good friends with Matt? I think they know enough about him.” Cut.
“And that whole paragraph about neighborly vengeance as a child? The turf wars between that 8-year-old neighbor and you and your brother?” Holy crap, cut that shit. Cut it all.
Sometimes the least likely audience is the most useful. Editing your work down to the sentences and ideas that move the narrative forward is a tricky business, but a necessary one. You don’t need to kill all your darlings, but most of them should probably go. Your readers won’t know them, and they certainly won’t miss them.
Everyone cares about the points you’re trying to make. Or they will, if you’ve done your job as a writer.
Everyone cares about a well-paced narrative, about explicit prose.
No one cares about puffery. No one cares about dancing with unnecessary detail, about the over-stimulated pageantry of storytelling, about the verbose, grandiose, perpetual tarantella of–
Right. I forgot to take the garbage out, and our kitchen is a mess.
No one cares about your dovetailing details. No one cares about your dog.
Jordan Wiklund is a writer and editor from St. Paul. His essays have been featured or are forthcoming from Pank, Fourth Genre, Versus, and elsewhere. Tweet him @JordanWiklund, or find him at the St. Paul Curling Club or Eagan wiffleball fields, depending on the season. Ask him about his dog.