Writing Tips: Don’t Be Too ‘Writery’

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Y’know how some movies are annoying because they’re so actory? By “actory” I mean that they seem to have been made only to give actors an opportunity to show off for each other, with no consideration for any wider audience.

Some of you, naturally, will someday want to try your hand at writing fiction. If you do, please to try not to be too “writery.” Like you might be imagining some reader shaking his head in awe and admiration and muttering, “Wow, this guy’s better than Hemingway!”

What makes prose too writery? Well, tell me what’s wrong with this picture:

My [bleep] personal life was like a goose without a gee, a slapstick tragedy. The hairs on my legs stood up and laughed at me. I live face-down in that ignored Gomorrah that calls itself Fashoda, New Jersey, along with all the rest of the acrophobic midgets and the songs that voices never share…

Imagine half a dozen pages of this, and you’ll get the picture.

For almost every purpose imaginable in literature, plain English will suffice. If you’re William Shakespeare, of course you can go beyond that. Way beyond it! If you’re Ross Macdonald you can tiptoe right up to the edge without falling off. But most of us are better off just saying what you mean.

I say it’s an achievement when the reader of your book loses the awareness of reading a book. Something to shoot for, eh? Or, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of writing is to write without writing.”

Writing Tips: Avoid Clunky Prose

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I’m currently reading, for review, a fantasy novel which is chock-full of exciting and creative situations and ideas. But it’s turning into rough sledding because the author’s prose style has a hard time carrying the story.

Cardinal rule: Don’t let your writing get between your reader and the story.

Sentences must be crafted to flow smoothly. They ought to have a certain meter or rhythm–without, of course, being too obvious about it. In fact, your prose should be as unobtrusive as possible–unless you’re Ngaio Marsh or P.G. Wodehouse, and half the fun of reading you is the unexpected tricks you play with words.

A good rule of thumb is to read your work aloud, to yourself. If it’s hard to do this, there’s something wrong with your prose. You don’t want a start-and-stop, herky-jerky prose.

For fantasy writers only: if, like so many of us, you place your story in a medieval setting, for Pete’s sake, don’t start slinging around rubbish like “methinks” or “I wot not what he sayeth” or “I prithee.” I really hate “I prithee.” You must also make and keep a vow never to resort to current American slang.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, plain English is the way to go. It always does the job.

Forsooth, I wot not what serveth yon medieval jargon, and I prithee, let me suffer it no more!