Posts Tagged polishing your prose

Are you bored? One writing rule you really need

‘Try to leave out the bits the reader will skip,’ said Elmore Leonard.

Sure, Mr L, but how do we identify them?

I thought about this recently when I read a manuscript that was heavy on technical detail. When I delivered my verdict – that many of these passages lost my interest – the author said:

‘I know what you mean – when I read other books on the subject, my eyes often glaze over at the technical passages.’

How interesting that he said that.

When editing our own work, one of the keenest senses we have is our gut instinct. Is it holding our attention? Or does it seem muddled, unconfident, lacking clarity? If we’re even just a tad dissatisfied, this means the passage needs more work.

Certainly, this requires a lot of stamina. Draft upon draft. I wrote a post about it here, when I was editing Lifeform Three.

This is a rule

There are few guarantees in making art. It’s hard to produce absolute formulae for what will work and what won’t. For every general principle – do show, don’t tell – there’s a valid anti-rule.

But this is one situation that does have an absolute rule.

Writer, if you are bored, the reader will be … oh do stay awake at the back.

This applies whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

So you’ve realised a passage in your book is boring you. Hooray. Now what?

How to not be boring

First, examine why you’re including this material. Is it out of a sense of duty? Is it an element you’ve seen in other books with a similar readership?

If so, do you have to be like those other books? Perhaps you do, and we’ll come to that next. But first, consider whether you could delete. Yes. Whip it out. Nuke it.

However, it’s more likely that some of this soporific sludge will be necessary for reader comprehension, or to maintain the book’s authority. What do you do?

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You resolve not to be dull.

Three solutions

Realise this: you don’t have to try to be like the other books that bored you. You can offer something different or more interesting.

Channel your best bits

Look for other passages in your book where the narrative has a more lively spirit. That’s you at your best. Drink their energy. Often I find that an author who sends me to sleep in some sections is sparky and brilliant in others. They need to channel that all the time. Perhaps ask a reader to pick some out for you.

Next, rewrite your lifeless passages with the same outlook and voice. Had you realised your persona varied so much?

Channel a muse

Here’s another approach. Look at other books whose style keeps you unusually entertained. We all have writers whose style perks us up, even if they’re describing the colour of their socks. Try and say it the way they would.

Write for an unforgiving reader

Sometimes it helps to write for an imagined audience. In this case, imagine a friend who won’t tolerate much detail about your pet subject.

I have several pet subjects that end up in my books, and I’ve learned to apply the Husband Test. Husband Dave has a shrug level of interest in some of my deepest curiosities.

One example is the remnants of demolished stately homes. I could keep myself amused all day with them, looking for the lines of old walls in a cow pasture, a front door step half buried in grass, an ornate gateway that seems to lead nowhere. When I wrote about a particularly enchanting site in Not Quite Lost, I knew it would be easy to lose the reader so I kept Dave in mind as I edited. How would I get him interested in them? Something in these buried remains felt universal and exciting to me. What was it? I had to reach beyond my own intrinsic interest (walls! doorsteps! gateways!) to a deeper level (the sediment of passing time! vanished people!).

Imagine your least indulgent reader. Write as though you had to keep their attention.

Thanks for the sleeping person pic Sean Kelly on Flickr. Thanks for the sleeping people pic: Pixabay.

Over to you! Is this a problem you’ve identified in your own work? How did you overcome it?

PS There’s loads more on how to keep readers interested in my book on plot

PPS Speaking of edits etc, here’s what I’m working on at the moment


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Repetition – a two-ended hammer

We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.

One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.

(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)

So how do you tackle it?

It helps to know where the danger areas are.

Redundant words

Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly – these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.

Overused verbs

Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.

Try Wordle

A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)

Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur

We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:

1 very obscure words

2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.

To which I answer:

1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them

2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?

I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)

Repetition – the good side

Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable ­- which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.

It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’

Use with a light touch

Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.

Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim

What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?

And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?

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