To announce her presence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Jane Umbridge cleared her throat with a crisp, “Hem-hem.” Writers of all genres have a tendency to do this, too (though, thankfully, most are less annoying and less evil than Umbridge). Before starting a body of writing, authors (particularly nonfiction authors) like to announce their intention with a bit of throat clearing.
The preamble to the actual writing can last anywhere from a paragraph to several pages, and it’s simply unnecessary and should be eliminated in revision. This article will help authors better understand what throat-clearing is, when they should clear their proverbial throats, and when they should delete the excess phlegm (ewe).
What is Throat-Clearing?
Throat-clearing is an introduction or a preamble to the writing. For example, I recently worked with a student whose memoir essay started out in a manner such as this:
It was the worst day of my life. I hadn’t been prepared for what would happen, and while I am thankful for what took place, I certainly had no idea that when my alarm went off, the day would end up the way that it did, my life forever changed.Other concerns aside, the first paragraph that leads us into this story is throat-clearing. It’s the author’s way of preparing the audience for what they are about to read and even preparing them for how to feel about it.
I had no indication that anything was amiss when my clock radio blared Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” at 6 a.m., jarring me out of a horrific nightmare about my cat falling off the roof.
Neither of these steps are necessary, particularly in creative nonfiction / memoir. Readers need to be given the opportunity to develop their own feelings and impressions about your writing.
What is more, throat-clearing communicates that you lack confidence in your ability to clearly tell a story or to explain something (for authors of other styles of nonfiction writing).
Note this happens in fiction as well. It usually happens in a story’s early draft when the author is trying to work things out, which is fine, and which brings me to my next point.
When Authors Should Clear Their Throats
There are times where an author should clear his or her throat, and that time is in early drafting. It’s okay, as an author to explain things to yourself as you’re prewriting or drafting. I highly recommend it. That’s why this body of work is called prewriting.
The thing about authors—especially new authors— is that they put an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to write a great or a near-perfect draft from the word “go”.
Even if you outline using K.M. Weiland’s awesome tried-and-true method (and related software), you’re still going to have content that needs to be purged as you edit and revise. (Outlining just means that you have less substantial editing to do (generally-speaking) after that first draft.)
When to Cut the Throat-Clearing
As your drafts mature (some authors write only one or two drafts; others write over 10…there is no right or wrong here), you should start cutting the fat. Look for excessive phrasings, wordings, etc., and cut accordingly. For example, any paragraphs, sentences, etc. that lead the reader into what’s coming next (ex: And here we will talk about… or Becky wasn’t sure how to feel about the note in her locker from Justice.). Cut that. Show Becky finding and reading the note and imply her lack of certainty through her reaction. I realize that some genres (i.e., MG and children’s chap books merit a little more telling vs. showing).
Note that while throat-clearing isn’t the deadliest writing sin, it’s superfluous writing. It can distract and even bore or annoy your audience. I recently returned an audiobook because after 15 minutes of throat-clearing, I couldn’t take it anymore (I only hung around for that long because this book had very positive ratings.). The author was building up her book, making vague insinuations of the amazing things to come, and because the preamble failed to amble into story, I abandoned and returned the book, something I almost never do. I wondered why this author’s editor didn’t tell her to shut it down and to get on with the story.
Less is more, so on that note…until next time.
Today’s the last day of NaNoWriMo and whether or not you participated, I hope you continue to “wri mo”. When you’re ready to “ed mo” whether it’s your first draft or your last draft (or if you just want a manuscript critique), contact me, Vonnie York by clicking this link to contact me, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.