I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of beginner fiction. Once I recovered from the eye-bleeds, I noticed a universal truth: new writers try too hard to sound like writers. If you’ve never seen this in action, you may be wondering what I mean. After all, isn’t the point of writing to sound like a writer? No! If you’re writing fiction, the point is to tell a story.
I’ll break down the ways to identify “writerly” writing in your own work as well as methods to eliminate it.
What Does “Writerly” Writing Look Like?
It looks ridiculous. Kind of like a baby in a business suit. But really, let’s go through some examples. I’ve noticed a few categories where beginner writers really over-do it, and I’ll demonstrate each.
The first is verbosity. The biggest word is not always the best word. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. There’s a few ways this problem can show itself. The more innocent is in a replacement scenario. The sentence goes as it normally would, and suddenly, a nine syllable beast appears.
“She affianced in fisticuffs with her alarm clock, exhibiting a promptitude for vehemence.”
Looks silly, right? This comes from the belief that being a good writer means impressing people with your vocabulary. The truth is that what impresses people isn’t a large vocabulary or using words they have to look up. People are impressed by clarity and a good story. Don’t let your writing get in the way of the story.
Verbosity’s Ugly Cousin
The other common form of verbosity is even more of a problem for your writing. It is a huge separator for writers with experience and beginners. So what is it? What could be worse than affiancing in fisticuffs? Refusing to delete sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes because you really liked how one part sounded.
Maybe you mentioned the way your protagonist saw their reflection in a window, and it was warped and you thought that was just seemed so cool, because her soul is warped at that point! Perfect! So what’s the problem? The problem is that you realize while editing that all the details surrounding that one sentence you liked should probably be cut from your story. Experienced writers will maybe light a candle or say a small prayer before laying down on the delete key. Beginner writers usually can’t bear to sacrifice a good sentence or idea.
My advice? Never get too attached. You have to be able to kill any single sentence or word you put down. If it makes you feel better, throw it on a document somewhere and tell yourself that you’ll find a way to bring it back from the dead some day. But for now, be ruthless
Over Description, or The “All-Points-Bulletin”
Maybe you’ve read this kind of description before. Crime novels and mysteries are particularly common perpetrators. Beginner writers love to over-describe as well. In fact, I met a beginner writer the other day. He was about six foot three, looked like he has about a size 32 waist, brown hair, blue eyes, strong jaw-line, calloused hands, walked with a limp, had a lazy eye, chewed on a toothpick—you get it. This problem comes from a lack of confidence. As a writer, you need to trust in your readers to read between the lines and fill in details. Your job isn’t to describe every single detail, but to give just the right details so your reader can picture the scene.
The common adage is that authors should “paint a picture” for their reader. I think this is a little misleading. It’s more like playing a game of connect the dots. Often, one or two strong details are more than enough for a reader to get the right impression of your character or scene. You could mention the way your character always checks to be sure the Gucci logo is facing outward on her purse. Maybe even that the purse seems well-worn. That’s a fun description. Readers get the satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, so maybe she’s kind of obsessed with how people see her. The purse being beat up probably means she’s actually not that wealthy but made a sacrifice to seem that way. So she’s probably a pretty superficial person.” You could throw in bleached blonde hair to complete the image. Granted, this description saves some words because it’s in our contemporary society.
Look at the following description from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:
“He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.”
Short, sweet, and to the point. The image will stick with readers and help them visualize scenes involving this character for the rest of the book. It’s unique and likely causes them to sift through people they know for an example of a “Coca-Cola” shaped man, which adds to their engagement with the text.
Setting The Scene Efficiently
Setting a scene works the same way as describing a character. I always remember from the Wheel of Time series that the scene descriptions were painful. Every room was full of gilded cabinets, dressers, drawers, mahogany bed stands, intricate carpets, and lavish curtains. Worse, I knew this because the author spent about a paragraph each time a character entered a new room (and another paragraph describing what they were wearing). Obviously no writer is perfect and readers are okay with that; after all, the WoT series was hugely popular and successful despite the over-descriptives being a common complaint. But what could he have done differently? He could have trusted his readers to fill in the gaps.
Would you be able to figure out that a room was likely decorated richly if the wine was poured from a gold cup lined with gems? Probably. Would you be able to even assume the room was richly decorated if it belonged to a wealthy merchant? Probably. So am I telling you to never describe a room? Not exactly. A room that says something about its owner is worth describing. A prince’s room being Spartan, for example, is somewhat interesting. It makes the reader wonder why a wealthy person has no interest in wealth, and what he is interested in.
The lesson of the day here is to be concise. If you’re just jumping into the writing business, remember this. Seasoned writers will spot you like blood on snow if you try to sound like a writer. Also remember that all those authors you read in high school and college were probably at least a generation or so behind our culture today. They were writing for a difference audience, one with attention spans longer than seven seconds. If you’re writing for a wider audience than college professors and indie book-shoppers, the hard truth is that you can’t write like Flaubert and expect modern audiences to respect it. Just look at the biggest and most popular new books of the last decade. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. If you’ve never looked between the covers of these books, I can tell you the writing does not strive to be literary. It’s all about telling a story.
Today’s reader wants a good story, and they want one that goes down easy. Every big, dense word is like a chunk in their literary smoothie. They don’t want to stop to chew. If it tastes good enough, you can get away with a few chunks, but if the flavor isn’t great, you had better make sure that baby goes down smooth and silky.