Today, in honor of Labor Day, I wanted to cover something that has been bugging me all week. It began last Monday when I started a new book and within pages the prose was already starting to annoy me. The words, or at least the author’s choice of long, lugubrious, often archaic words were already getting in the way of the story – and I wasn’t even at Chapter 2! As soon as I started to read I got the impression that the author was trying way too hard to impress the reader, rather than focusing on creating a compelling story. In some ways the writer was confusing style with content and in so doing, this reader at least, was no longer interested in reading. It had become too laborious. The words themselves had got in the way.
So why was this? I think in this instance it was the result of a naive writer hoping to show-off their linguistic prowess (or something like that – it felt like dictionary gymnastics at times!) and hoping perhaps that this somehow created an aura of literary validity (it didn’t!). What frustrated me the most was that the word choices detracted from what could have been a pretty strong start to a cozy mystery. It got me thinking about why – for someone like me who is drawn to perhaps the more wordy novels anyway (I love Dickens!) – was the prose was so off-putting? I decided it was simple – it was because it was unnecessary. And this at the heart of most things that go wrong with the start of a novel. Anything that feels unnecessary to the reader creates a barrier between them and the page. It stops them from wanting to keep turning that page. Instead, I like to think that a writer should go through a checklist, when reviewing their work, asking themselves a series of questions – something a little like this:
- Can I use a simpler word, phrase or description? When I substitute that, does it propel the story forward, or dilute it? (If it dilutes the power of what is being described or being said, then maybe the original word, phrase or description should stay).
- What is my reason for using a long/obscure word instead of a more straightforward one? Does it serve as mere affectation, or provide something more nuanced and appropriate in the circumstances? Am I using it because I think it makes me sound more erudite or because it’s the right word to use?
- Would most readers have to look the word up? (if so, why use it? It only stops a reader dead in their tracks).
- Does my writing sound like I just ingested a thesaurus? (If so, edit now!)
- When I read my writing aloud does it flow or do I find myself stumbling over the word choices I’ve made? (I find this an invaluable tool – because if I find myself tripping over the words I know I reader will find it hard to read the piece too).
Basically, don’t belabor your words. Let them flow, simply and easily. Readers will thank you.
So TKZers, tell, me what was the last book that you felt the author belabored their words? Any of your own advice to add to the checklist?