What Audiobooks Taught Me About Writing (Part 1)

For years I was an audiobook abridger for several major publishing houses. Titles I worked on won Audie Awards (the Oscars of the audiobook industry), and many others were nominated. It was a great gig that taught me a lot as a writer.


Before the popularity of digital audiobook downloads, podcasts and the like, audiobooks were primarily released on CD and, even longer ago, cassette tape. A whole cottage industry, known as abridging, thrived during that time because most books (fiction or nonfiction) were abridged (shortened) before recorded as audiobooks.


Why? Because listening to a book is an entirely different experience than reading a book: the product is different; the audience is perhaps listening while doing something else, or in smaller snippets of time (perhaps driving or exercising with headphones, short distances). And a few years back, people didn’t want to have to lug 12 cassettes or 6 CD’s around if they bought an audiobook of Roots or Gone with the Wind.


So I would be hired to cut anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the book. Usually 30-40%. I’ve abridged many great titles: award-winning novels and novelists, bestselling nonfiction titles from worldwide CEO’s and championship-winning coaches, sex manuals, you name it.


Abridging was definitely a craft that helped me as a writer. How?


1. I had to decide: what is the essence of this story? What has to stay and what can go? Distilling a work of fiction or nonfiction to its essence was absolutely necessary. For fiction, secondary plots and characters often went by the wayside. For non-fiction, the main points of the theme remained but the examples and case studies would go. What was the thrust the audience just had to ‘get’ if they were going to be able to say they ‘read’ this book?


2. I could not add any new words to the text: I could only cut. I was not a writer and editor here — only a pure editor. Often I would combine halves of sentences and cut pages of paragraphs in between. I can still hear my audiobook exec pal say, “Cut!”


3. If I cut out the character of Joe, I had to be sure to cut Joe out throughout the book. I had to be consistent. Otherwise, if Joe is accidentally left in during even one moment of the book — say he suddenly appears out of nowhere in the climax of the plot — the reader will say, “Who is Joe?” That is the cardinal sin of abridging.


4. I also had to prepare the book into script format without any typos, or widows/orphans (dangling phrases) so that an actor reading doesn’t stumble or have to turn a page in mid-sentence, a sound that the microphone would pick up. So I had to turn in work that was polished and free of error.


5. I also had to stay within a certain word count that corresponded with the contracted length of the audiobook recording. So I had to keep within the professional parameters of the assignment. If the actor was a slow reader, the producer would come back to me and ask me to take out another 2,000-5,000 words to fit within the hour limit of the recording. And I did. Abridging taught me how to shorten a piece several times on short notice, which has helped me in dozens of other writing situations.


Now that the digital revolution, Audible and Amazon have changed audiobooks, books are rarely abridged anymore. Readers/listeners get the whole book, and perhaps that’s just as well. Good thing I have other jobs as a writer because abridging is a goner!


But I’m forever grateful for my years as an abridger. Why?


1. Abridging helped me see my own writing in a new light. It forced me to look at my work and ask, “What is essential? What is this story truly about?” It also showed me I had to be spot-on professional.


2. Abridging helped me be a bolder editor. One day I was abridging Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were The Mulvaneys down to its ‘essence,’ then later went back to my script assignment at the time and said, “Oh, no, that scene is SO great! It HAS to stay in! Oh, that character HAS to stay in! I can’t cut my precious gems!”  Then I caught myself: how could I be so ginger with my own words while feeling so free to edit the great Joyce Carol Oates? Sorry: gotta kill your darlings, folks. And in the abridger’s case, other people’s darlings, too. After a few years of abridging, I would finally go back to my work and say, “Well, that can go. That can go, too; and that. And that.”


3. Abridging tipped me off to the changes that would come for readers and writers. After my abridging experience — central to the approach of a book being released in multiple formats to build an audience — I’m not surprised by the advent of social media, e-books, book trailers, indie publishing, indie audiobook recording, and so on. Things were already changing even then. In my first years of abridging assignments, I’d receive an old classic novel in hard copy and scan the entire thing in before editing. But before long, I’d receive the manuscripts by email (thankfully!)


4. Abridging taught me to be more flexible — and more firm. For example, I learned that first-time published writers were tough. They hated their work being touched. The more established writers understood that an audiobook was a different animal and accepted me and my job. Their changes, I could respect. But the newbies lashed out at my every cut, so I’d have to go back to the drawing board again and again. After a while I’d have to tell them, “Hey, this is my required word count and we have to stick to it. If you want to keep that scene, please suggest which one you want cut instead.” Editors and writers need to choose their battles well and know when to be firm and when to be flex.


So I always keep these abridging lessons in mind when I write my own scripts, novels and articles these days. I still write narrative introductions to digital audiobooks (to give listeners an overview of what they are about to hear) — it’s still fun to do work for the audio industry. The field will be around for years to come and is experiencing a resurgence. Like many things in writing and life, we have to adjust to new developments and directions, at least in part. We’ll be all the better for it.




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