Friday, January 11, 2019

Writing: Things An Author Needs To Know

One of the debates among neophyte writers is whether or not there are "rules." I think they're suggestions, and following them won't get you published. But you need to know them and keep them in mind as you write. I've said that Picasso can put lips and ears wherever he wants to, although I'll bet he knows where they should be and why he goes against convention.

I don't know the source of these (sorry), but they've been hanging above my computer since early on. There are 15, and I read them frequently. Here are some things to avoid, with my comments.

1. Overwriting: Mark Twain said, "Never use a dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do." My first reader always cautions me to omit things that slow the reader down. One of those is having to look up the meaning of a word. Don't use fancy or long words to show how smart you are.

2. Using unnecessary words: Write long, and then take out the unnecessary words...or even scenes. If it doesn't move the action forward or convey emotion, why include it? As has been said, fiction is everyday stuff with the hum-drum removed. Elmore Leonard indicated he tried to take out what most people skip. My question--why put it in?

3. Using cliches, platitudes, qualifiers, jargon and overdone words: One of the first things my agent called to my attention was the use of cliches. This led me to remove them and substitute better words--which, I suppose, might someday become cliches, but they'd be mine. Seriously, keep your reader on their feet, don't put them to sleep.

4. Using long, run-on sentences: I'll admit that I'm fond of compound sentences--two parts, joined by "and" or "but," but I try not to make them too long. (See what I did there?) If your paragraph is really just a long sentence, break it up.

5. Using too many adjectives and adverbs: Go to Elements of Style and you'll read that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. Keep the use of their assistants down in order to give punchy sentences that carry your thoughts. Don't say he ran swiftly. Say that he sprinted. And indicate that he was breathless with the effort.

6. Not varying sentence length: If sentences are all the same length, they eventually put the reader to sleep. (That's my justification for throwing in a compound sentences every once in a while). This is a great reason to read your work aloud. Vary the rhythm.

7. Not explaining your terms: Since I write medical fiction, I have to explain many of the terms I use. However, you get tired of reading (and writing), "By this, he meant..." The author has to be creative, but the end result will be better. Readers aren't stupid...but they hate to read with a dictionary or thesaurus by their side.

That's about half of these "rules" or "suggestions." Do you think they're self-evident? Or have you encountered instances where the author should have followed them more?

Tweet with a single click: Rules or suggestions, these admonitions make writing better.


Priscilla said...

An experienced author of the book I'm currently reading repeated a 7-word descriptive cliche within just a few pages of each other. I guess even the seasoned authors mess up.

Richard Mabry said...

Yes, and those are the sort of things an editor should (but sometimes doesn't) catch. Depends on the editor, the house for whom they work (or the person, if the book is indie-published). Mistakes always happen, no matter how hard we try to prevent them. Thanks for the comment.