A Lesson from a National Best Seller

I recently finished reading the historical national best seller 1776 by David McCullough.

At the same time, I was editing an autobiography.

There were obvious differences between the book I was editing for work and the book I was reading for pleasure (an endorsement from The New York Times Book Review being one; I will leave it to you to figure out which it was for), but one stark comparison stood out to me as a valuable lesson for writers and editors alike about the proper way to transition between scenes.

In the autobiography, when the author was transitioning from one story or scene to the next, I would find this phrase: “Now, back to…”

In McCullough’s book, I didn’t find a single instance of this phrase or anything similar.

What this phrase is doing is calling out to a reader that you had moved away from the original point and now you are returning to it. It’s as though you placed a bright orange DETOUR sign in the middle of your scene, and now, after weaving through back roads and small-town neighborhoods, we are finally back on the highway.

Of course, to tell an interesting story, sometimes we need those detours. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that it shouldn’t feel like a detour but rather part of the main story. You shouldn’t have to say, “Now, back to…” because you should always still be in the story!

It could also be that you don’t trust the reader to follow you, and you feel that the reader needs some help coming back to the point. Consider, however, that as the writer, you need to write your story well enough that the reader is able to follow you without any hand holding.

If you ever have to use that phrase (or something like it), this should be a warning sign to you that something is wrong. In that case, you have a few options:

1) Cut the detour altogether, or

2) Edit until you can transition seamlessly from one scene to the next.

Admittedly, this issue is difficult to demonstrate in a succinct example, so (in this post, at least) I’m not going to be showing you how to transition without using this phrase. What I will suggest is that you practice spotting these phrases in your writing and determine the reason for using them. Then, edit as necessary.

Trust that your writing is strong enough to stand on its own and that readers will be able to follow you from one scene to the next. And if you don’t think your writing is strong enough to guide the reader, that’s a problem! (This is also why an editor can be very helpful in pointing out places where a reader might become confused.)

Remember: Readers want to dive into a story and enjoy the journey. They do not want a DETOUR sign to interrupt their travels.

Do you notice phrases like this? What do you do to correct them? 

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One thought on “A Lesson from a National Best Seller

  1. Pingback: Don’t Write Exactly How You Speak | Amanda Bumgarner

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