Don’t Let Your Book Be a Bad Sweater

Last Friday All Things Considered host Melissa Block interviewed Paul Lukas, who writes about the aesthetics of sports uniforms (really) on his blog Their topic? The Ralph Lauren sweaters our United States Winter Olympic team will wear in the February 7th opening ceremony. “It’s like a Cliff Huxtable sweater,” Lukas said, “and it really does have the kitchen sink in there.”

Ralph Lauren/AP Photo

Ralph Lauren/AP Photo

I have to agree with his assessment. But why am I doing so here, on my editing blog?

Because the impulse to share every tidbit, to throw everything in–all the nuggets, all the history (e.g. “the wool hails from Oregon, was spun in Pennsylvania, then yarned in North Carolina, before being knitted in California by the husband-and-wife team Ball of Cotton,” according to–well, authors are just as susceptible to this as designers.

Don’t let your book become a confusing mish mosh of bad sweater and kitchen sink! Accept that your book will not be all things to all people. Accept that (gasp) some people will live their whole lives having never, ever heard about your book. You don’t need them to. Consider getting an outsider’s view, or two, or three, or–shameless plug–consider professional editing, if you are not sure which of your stories is the most compelling and which you could spin off or save until your next book.

It’s OK if your prose wanders a bit. One of my favorite nonfiction authors, Bill Bryson, is a master rambler. But he uses each ramble purposely, to advance and integrate his narrative. I expect he throws out a lot of good material in the process. Bryson takes on topics as potentially sprawling as Australia, or Shakespeare, or indeed A Short History of Nearly Everything, and manages to tell a unified story, all the while weaving in research, humor, and in the case of his travel books, personal experience.

For an example that veers closer to the Huxtable sweater, check out Gulp, by Mary Roach. This was the first book of hers I’ve read, and because I like her Dirty Jobs-esque subject matter I am planning to give her the benefit of the doubt by also reading Packing for Mars and Stiff some time soon.

Gulp, by Mary Roach

Gulp, by Mary Roach

I got pretty irritated with Gulp. I found myself skipping around and didn’t even finish it. It does a good job of blending long-form, offbeat case studies about digestion with enough straight-up facts that you get a more or less stepwise view of how the alimentary canal works.

But there are also about one hundred footnotes in each chapter, not to mention diversions in the running text, where it seems that Roach couldn’t bear not to share: cutesy stories about how she, the Witty Young Reporter, acted when she met The Famous Obscure Dr. So-and-So. A letter someone wrote to someone else about something vaguely related to her spit sniffing adventure. Poop jokes.

I’m not kidding.

So, if you’re still generating brand-new material, it’s probably a good idea to write on. Just keep generating until you’re tired of it. Once you’ve got maybe 50-75 pages and a rough table of contents, go to the library or bookstore and start browsing the sections where you think your book might go. Start narrowing it down.

At that point, it might be a good idea to talk with someone about your idea and what you’ve got so far. Can you describe it in 15 words or less? You may have a nice-looking suit in the works. Can’t describe it in less than 50? You may be weaving an ugly sweater.