Don’t Belabor Your Prose

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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?
  3. Would most readers have to look the word up? (if so, why use it? It only stops a reader dead in their tracks).
  4. Does my writing sound like I just ingested a thesaurus? (If so, edit now!)
  5. 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?

28 thoughts on “Don’t Belabor Your Prose

  1. I think it was Stephen King who said any word you get from the thesaurus is the wrong word. That may be a bit over the top, but only a bit…

    Reminds me of a Groucho line from Duck Soup: “Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report! (whispering to an aide) Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”

    Popular fiction probably needs to be at the low high school or high middle grade level.

    • I don’t mind a book that taxes my brain vocal wise but only if it’s worth it in terms of progressing and enhancing the story. It’s when it’s just there for some kind of pretension that I get irritated!

  2. You make a very good point!

    Although I have a background in linguistics and ancient languages (and so know quite a few obscure words), I don’t use them in my thrillers (well, maybe once in a while just to shake things up!). A reader reads for escape and pleasure, not for a vocabulary lesson.

    • Good point – an occasional choice word that makes a reader ponder is one thing but a vocal lesson requiring a dictionary beside the bed is quite another!

  3. Clare, thanks. Great advice.

    I don’t write historical fiction, but any tips on how the writer of historical fiction should approach this? How does she use the words and phrases from her era without making the mistakes you mentioned?

    • Good question Steve. I think you just have to achieve a balance, so it sounds like an era but isn’t so stiff or alienating that modern readers find it a slog. I think it’s also a question of style – you can evoke a past era and yet still have a flow/style that doesn’t seem old-fashioned or dull:) Using certain words or phrases sparingly can keep the period feel without stopping a reader in their tracks.

  4. I won’t name names, but I recently put aside a book because I kept hearing the writer instead of the story. I don’t mean “voice” — that is something subtle and powerful from a great writer. What I mean is that this writer, who is a darling of the critics in our genre, was trying hard to impress with what I suspect she/he figured were sophisticated narrative skills and structure. But it was all flash and gas, written in neon: “Look at me!”

    Yesterday, I read an excellent review of David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” in the NYT book review. The reviewer called Mitchell (who wrote “Cloud Atlas”) a “maximalist.” A great turn of phrase to describe a writer whose novels are dense with words and strange and challenging structures. But the reviewer noted that despite Mitchell’s gymnastics, he never loses sight of his commitment to grand storytelling.

    The reviewer wrote that his books, “never give off the sour taste or intellectualism of a lot of virtuoso fiction.”

    Bingo. “Virtuoso fiction.” Lord save us all from it.

    • Love that review! And yes, I think it is all about the story – rather than some kind of attempt to impress that can certainly leave a ‘sour taste’!

  5. We all recall what Sir Aurthur Quiller-Couch said about style. I have to admit I am guilty of using the six-bit words when a two-bit word would work as well. I really talkk like that. I shouldn’t, but I do. A reporter once changed my quote, substituting a shorter word for a phrase I’d used. When I complained, she said, “Oh, nobody really talks like that.” It’s my wife’s biggest complaint when reading my WIP. She keeps me from being too smarty pants.

    • I’m also an offender on word usage and rely on my beta readers and agent to tell me when I’m being too self indulgent or appearing to be (as you say) a smarty pants:)

  6. I love this post because I always feel like I need to raise the level of vocabulary, when in fact, my characters don’t use big ‘pretentious’ words, so why should I. I want to be off the page, and let my characters tell the story. I will admit to liking that my e-reader has a built-in dictionary so I can press a word and get the definition, but if I’m doing that more than once or twice in a book, then it’s losing me.

  7. This is doubly obnoxious because there are so many ways to demonstrate style without demonstrating the stretch of your vocabulary. The greatest crime-fiction stylists — Chandler, Jim Thompson, Westlake, Donald Parker, Paretsky, Child, MacDonald, Mcadonald, etc. — establish distinctive voices within plain prose.

    Like they say, it ain’t so much what you got as how you use what you got.

  8. I’m a newbie fiction writer. I dislike long, flowery, poetic, stuffed shirt descriptions. Guess that is what ‘literary’ means. If the first paragraph doesn’t pull me into the story, I’m gone and cursing the money I spent. Writers who write like that should stick to poetry, not prose.

    I like writing that uses the KISS method — keep it simple stupid. Perhaps that is because I am a slow reader, I relish every word.

  9. James Scott Bell is right in reminding us that failure to know your reader, in particular his/her language skills is probably disastrous. If I set out to write genre fiction for the widest possible audience, I better come to terms with that audience’s basic makeup.
    I have to be careful about this: I want to be read by the general reader, but my background is academic. I also happen to fancy (there’s a giveaway usage if ever there was one) certain British writers who are in the habit of using fancy lingo for satirical purposes. Say for instance a deadpan, high-culture discussion of a Sly Stallone movie. But this style is not going to fly for the audience I’m trying to reach. The challenge is to develop stories that are accessible, and that I’m proud of.

    • Barry, I have a running email dialogue with a Brit friend of mine…every time I run across one of those weird Brit-isms, I get him to explain it to me. It is truly like reading another language at time.

    • PJ–please ask your friend why the upper classes are so attached to the following: actually, quite, brilliant, keen on, jolly, splendid–that’s enough. I envy you your Brit friend, and yes, it’s much different “over there.” For years, I read the London Review of Books and The Observer, but it can be truly “another language” when you listen to working-class dialects–there’s where your friend is crucial.

  10. In public school, I got high marks for my essays because once I’d written them, I pulled out the thesaurus and replaced the simple words with fancier ones. ( groan now!)

    That doesn’t work in fiction, and I think one reason is that by using words you don’t use in your every day language (oral or written), you’re actually not allowing your own voice to shine.

    A second reason words gleaned from a thesaurus often don’t work is that the writer is focused too much on a single word, rather than the other elements of the sentence…rhythm, for example. Often the solution is not the word but the whole sentence. By searching for a single word, you’ve got blinders on, and you don’t think outside of the box to find a better way to express the idea.

  11. Sheryl–
    Any teacher who improved your grade for tarting up your essays with thesaurus “enhancements” is a loser. Please go back to your school and say just that.

  12. Excellent post, Clare, and I love how your title works with Labor Day – so clever! Like Jim with his mastodons and tar pits yesterday! And you both had similar messages – don’t clutter up your story unnecessarily. Don’t get in the way of the story. Some authors forget that it’s all about the reader – or should be!

    I would add the same message on the level of sentences and paragraphs. So many of my clients use long, convoluted sentences which I help them simplify so their message is more powerful. And others clutter up their paragraphs with extra, repetitive sentences that need to be cut out. Many of the chapters in my Fire up Your Fiction focus on ways to streamline sentences to write tighter, for an easier, smoother flow of ideas – and to let the message shine through clearly, with more power.

    • Thanks Jodie! I think sometimes it’s way to easy to lose sight of the story and to get so hung up on affecting a particular style that it starts to overwhelm what would otherwise be a pretty simple premise! I try very hard not to fall into this trap myself – but I probably only succeed 50% of the time:) It’s a constant learning process!

  13. “Unnecessary” or “Is this (word or information) necessary?” is a great editing question to pose at every turn. Extra “stuff” is a drag on the reader. Next thing you know, you’re dragging out your old pet peeves and throwing in annoying little wisecracks and witticisms, a la Donald Rumsfeld. You just get carried away with yourself. I’ve been editing and deleting all day long today and am still wondering how all these gems got into my WIP.

  14. A normal writer would be too embarrassed to admit this, but this was my biggest mistake when I started out as a writer!
    My first romance novel Mr. Mysterious in Black is the epitome of what you described. I didn’t have a lot of guidance starting out, and the “belaboring” of my prose was a result from one, overediting (not thinking my work was good enough) and two bad literary advice from an editor/author who told me my prose was too “common-speak” . (<–i paid close to $1000 for that, because back then I knew nothing about beta readers.)

    Her advice had me doctering every single sentence in that book to make it less “common-speak”. Even more overediting. The result was a book loaded with pretentious words as I was lead to believe that’s what was “acceptable” in the literary world.

    It’s the biggest complaint from readers who got their hands on that book. They love the story, but the writing a big turn off. The Goodreads page from that book is a disaster!

    Ironically, even though this book of mine is the one with most flaws, one stars and DNFs, it IS my best selling book. Crazy, right? None of my other books sells half as good as that faulty one.

    Therefore, I am in the processing of revamping it, going back the original “common-speak”.

    I have learned. I have grown. I am not ashamed to admit to my mistakes and failures.

    Great article! Wish I has this advice back then!

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