Lazy Writing and How to Avoid It
Someone is asleep at the wheel...or at his laptop. Let's not disturb him. Shhhhh.
I’ve been teaching writing for almost 14 years and have been writing fiction for 25. It has been my experience that anyone can write well if given the proper tools and education. Usually someone tip-toes into my classroom with their short story or poem or random work of fiction under their arm. They hold it out with tremulous hands and ask politely if I will edit their work for them. I usually ask them to speak up. They are usually terrified of me because they do not know how to accept honest criticism that is meant to help. Acquaintances tell us what we want to hear while real friends tell us what we need to hear. Unless it is a student or a very, very good friend I will ask for payment. What I find sometimes exhibits the following marks of laziness:
1. Too Many Quantifiers – I mean, really. He is really big or really tall or very old or too big or very little or small or fat or thin. The English language is overflowing with adjectives and adverbs to couple perfectly with every descriptive need. I am well acquainted with a priceless companion named thesaurus. Every writer should have this valuable tool permanently grafted to their arm. Writers claim to be painters of words but many of them have nothing to work with but a box of 8 crayons.
2. Show, Don’t Tell – I wrote a blog a few days ago about this subject. Remove “to be” verbs from your text. Another method is to find every instance of the words “since”, “as if” and “seemed” and find a better way to phrase the sentences. The point is that writers should show readers a word picture of settings, characters, emotions, and actions rather than telling readers and assuming they can imagine things for themselves.
3. Read It Backwards – When entering the editing stage of writing a novel, I go to each chapter and edit by reading the last sentence of the chapter by itself to see if my grammar is sound. I then read the sentence before that one and judge it’s grammar. This tedious process forces me to examine all of my errors. It has caused me to focus on individual sentences to look for bad syntax and lazy description. When we edit forward (like most people) we often miss our errors because our brains want to force all sentences into one complete thought (as well they should) but the casual and definitely the careful reader will pick up on your grammar errors and find them off-putting. With dialogue I read each sentence spoken by each character to ensure that the voice does not change.
4. Fried Shoes – I once had a brilliant writing professor, Dr. Bill Mitchell, who would often speak of the beat poets who felt that their poetry did not have to mean anything at all but that it was an expression of their psyche. He said that when you asked them what their poem meant, they would say “It means fried shoes, man. Fried shoes.” On behalf of Dr. Mitchell, myself, and nearly every literary agent and publishing editor I’ve ever spoken to: that’s not good enough! Your story must mean something to your reader or it is so much wasted time for everyone. It must have some type of universal theme upon which readers can graft an interest. I don’t know if you’ve read Kerouac, but his stories had meaning even if the grammar was bad, the sentences were broken and the dialogue was set off with dashes. His stories are as deep as the Mariana Trench. They grab your heart in an angry fist and never let go.
5. Time is the Little Death – Writers of longer texts sometimes don’t know what to do with their characters between scenes. Often, two mistakes are made: (1) Passage of time is not explained and suddenly the characters are at their next destination and the reader is left in the lurch and (2) passage of time is written about where pretty much nothing happens and readers read the most boring 1-4 chapters they have ever had the displeasure of scrolling through. Have you ever been reading a novel and want to skip ahead to the good parts? This is a writer guilty of laziness. This is problem combatted with careful planning, hard work that some writers are not willing to sweat about and it is their fatal flaw. An outline is a very good idea especially for long works. Know where the characters are going ahead of time and you won’t have to bore the readers while you figure it out for three chapters.
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