Friday, September 17, 2010

Breaking Bad Writing Habits

by Jean Henry Mead

It’s often difficult for novices to break the writing habits they've learned in school. Perfect grammar, especially when writing dialogue, is one of the worst mistakes a writer can make. I was in an online critique group a dozen years ago, comprised mainly of unpublished writers. I’ll never forget a critique that said, “You need to clean up your characters’ grammar.” The characters were uneducated farmers.

Author William Noble once said, “The grammar rules we learned in eighth grade should never be followed absolutely. At best they are one choice among several, and at worst, they will dampen our creative instincts.”

The use of clichés is another fledgling blunder. The rule of thumb is: if it sounds familiar, don’t use it. If you can’t come up with something original and your muse is tugging you on, type in a row of Xs and write it later during the second draft. But if you must use a cliché, add the word proverbial as in "as profitable as the proverbial golden goose."

Of course there are rules that must be followed, such as adding commas for clarity and periods at the end of sentences. Some writers have felt that innovative sentence structure signals creativity, but the practice is only acceptable now in poetry. In Ulysses, for example, James Joyce’s last chapter begins with:

Yes, because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for the masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever. . .

Joyce’s stream of conscience continues for forty pages without a single period. I wonder how many people actually read it to the end. Creative and innovative? In my opinion, anything that slows the reader for even a few words may cause him to abandon the book.

On the opposite end of the sentence spectrum, Hemingway taught novices to write declarative sentences: “The day had been hot.” “The rifle was long and cold and strange.” “She wore black shoes, a red cape and a white tunic. . .” However, short, choppy sentences must be interspersed with longer ones to make them read well. A good practice for beginning writers is to read one’s work aloud to avoid clumsy phrasing. If words don’t flow well together and your reader stumbles over them, you’ve lost her.

Reading the classics doesn't prepare anyone well to write for today’s market. I’ve judged writing contest entries that contain the most formal language I’ve read since reading War and Peace. Some fledglings avoid contractions entirely, even when writing dialogue. The result is stilted language.

Studying the bestsellers for style, content, description and characterization helps the beginner gain a handhold in the current market. Some writing teachers advise copying your favorite author’s work, as artists have done with the masters—as long as it’s only practice and doesn't result in plagiarism.

I learned to write fiction by studying the work of Dean Koontz and others. Whose writing have you studied and did it teach you the language of fiction?


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great reminders, Jean.

I love James Lee Burke's descriptions, but could never do as well.

I think you need to read all the books that you can and then come up with your own style.


Terry Odell said...

Finding your voice is something that comes with practice. I've found that when the words flow, when I don't stop to find the 'perfect phrase' that I'm using MY voice. It's another place where there aren't any real 'rules.' My former agent would circle every instance of 'was' in my manuscript. Yet pick up Lee Child, or Michael Connelly -- would anyone tell them they were wrong to use that construction?

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Earl Staggs said...

Great message, Jean. I was impressed by Hemingway's strong, sparse sentences and O'Henry's longer, more flowing ones. I think my style borrows from both and falls somewhere in between. Also, I think any writer tempted to copy the stilted, perfect language of literary classics would be well-served to read a bit of Huck Finn first.