Posts Tagged writing voice

Three steps to a smoother writing style

317528561_6f008366a3_zThis week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.

Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.

1 Ditch the filler words

Look at this:

Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.

Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.

What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.

Paul had [told me] said

Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.

[during] at

No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.

our [initial] first contact

Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.

 that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before

Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.

by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.

Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.

2 Prune unnecessary detail

[on the phone]

Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.

And so we have:

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.

Step 3 –jazz up your verbs

Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):

He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….

Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.

Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.

Those 3 steps in summary

1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.

2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.

3 Rock your verbs.

Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr

Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?

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Are you writing the wrong genre?

We all have strengths and weaknesses in our writing, but are yours telling you something about the kind of novel you should write?

I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)

Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.

How to pep yourself up

Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?

Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.

But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.

However…

But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.

This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.

Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?

Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.

I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?

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