What’s Worse: Tangential, Rambling, Or Missing Content?

missing content

Your first draft might be a brain dump, so it’s on you to rid subsequent drafts of holes, sleeping pills and imposters. What’s your Achilles’ heel: tangential, rambling, or missing content?

Everyone wants bright ‘n shiny writing that gets across a great story. Starting from a draft zero and ending with a polished manuscript is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So how do you get there? How do you write on purpose?

Three of the big faults of early drafts are gaping holes, sleeping pills, and imposter passages.

Gaping holes are obvious. They are marked by a break in the story, the absence of key information, or a logical void the reader gets lost in. Why is Harold suddenly in Tahiti? Where did that character come from? Why did Jane quit her job when she was about to get promoted? Robots don’t have feelings, so why did X-400 take pity on the kitten?

If you have to ask such questions about a finished story you are reading, your next thought might be, “This author doesn’t know how to write.” If you are reading an early draft, you’ll point out the missing content for the author to fix. But what if the author is you? Hone your skills at asking those kinds of questions. Since the story is in your head, it can be easy to overlook the blindingly obvious.

Sleeping pills are those sections when you might fall asleep with the book on your lap. Like a frog being boiled alive, you don’t even feel it creeping up on you. You just turn the page and the words go on without anything happening. You keep waiting for the punchline until your eyes close or you abandon the story. In a good book, there’s a payoff when the author finishes the sleeper section and gets you back in the swing of things.

Imposter passages blindside you. They come out of nowhere and you question them as soon as they hit, but you aren’t sure until you get farther into the book whether they might pan out. Why is the author suddenly talking about baseball? Why do I need to know so much about iron forging? Why am I getting to know the intimate thoughts of this tertiary character?

While some of these mysteries reveal themselves farther along, nothing should come as such a big about-face that it jars the reader. Imposter passages read like they are a copy and paste job from a different book. It could be that imposter passages reflect that the author has really worked out the plot; it’s the fact that scenes are coming at you out of proper order that is bothersome.

So, which of these banes of writing should you look out for most in re-working a draft? All three, of course. This trinity of errors will weigh down any story, even if the rest is great, and can relegate a book to the “unreadable” stack.

First drafts can be the process of getting all your ideas down so you can check off the fact that you have a whole book on your hands. Once the idea is complete, you can tweak, replace, cut, add, strengthen and tighten to your heart’s content. No matter how clean your draft, it can always be improved, and you might lean towards committing one of these sins as a habit more than the others, making it easier to catch and remedy.

It makes sense to trim the fat first. Cut or smooth out any blind-siders first and foremost. It might hurt to cut them, as you lose word count, and they could be some of the snazziest passages you’ve ever written: but if they don’t belong, they will just diminish the readability of your book.

If a passage that really belongs is coming across as an imposter, you have to examine your plot. This is the best reason to start editing by tackling imposter passages. Try breaking down your book into scenes, making a chronological timeline of events, and match both against how you want the facts to unfold as the reader turns the pages. Once you find the right home for that passage, it will lock into place as an indigenous element in your story.

Next, cut sleeper sections, making sure to retain any bits of logic and continuity you need to keep. In fact, this is the best way to look for sleeper sections. If you can drop things without changing the story, there is a good chance you have located a sleeper section.

In an early draft, you have to be careful not to cut sections too quickly. Be certain before you trim something that is not a necessary section waiting for a yet-to-be-written dependent passage. Don’t cut those sections – mark them as gaps to fill later on.

Some sleeper sections are special in that they tell something essential to the story. They may just need to be revved up. Think about changing the setting or the characters who are present at that moment, or add a new bit of conflict or make the passage shorter so you can get on to more urgent scenes.

Once you have as rich a draft as possible, devoid of tangents, distractions, and missing content, you should be able to see your story better. It might be scary to throw away segments of your book due to sleepy and tangential passages, but you’ve done a brave and sensible thing. The perk is it makes those pesky gaps all the easier to find. Any remaining gaps should jump out at you. As you fill them in, you can read your draft for flow and pace, and think about heightening your plot points. Everything you add at this stage will be strongly flavored by the backbone of your story.

Training your eye to see these weak points in your drafts pays great benefits. If you have a hard time seeing them because you are too close to your story, have someone read it for you and specifically ask them to mark the sleepers, imposters, and missing content. Once you get the hang of seeing them, you’ll have an easier time working around them. In time and with enough practice, you won’t ever write them in the first place.


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  1. I’m struggling with “sleeper” in this book I’m typing/editing. Thing is, the nature of the book is new experiences for the family–it’s natural to have a lot of description, and it’s part of the author’s style to go into lots of detail (He knows his audience might not be familiar with how things got done 80 years ago, but he doesn’t have to explain a rotary-dial telephone. Or does he?). It’s like, “Am I cutting into the author’s style by editing it, or do I just market it as ‘bedtime reading’?”


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