As I’ve been reading and editing both my own work and that of others lately I’ve realized a few things that as writers we need to get straight.

1. Extra words

Often used words like:

  • that
  • seems
  • very
  • such as/as
  • also
  • well
  • … list yours here….

We fill our sentences with extra words that don’t add to the sentence or even really clarify its meaning, they only make it longer. Let’s learn to cut them out.

2. Fluffy words

Adding words that sound intelligent or that overly describe what is happening, again, do not add to the sentence. They only make it longer. Words like:

  • therefore
  • however
  • whereby
  • rather
  • …list yours here…

3. Show, don’t tell

  • Don’t tell me he picked up the ball clumsily, show him dropping it.
  • Don’t tell me she said it casually, show her leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs.
  • Don’t tell me he was scared, show him jumping at a strange sound.

It all boils down to a phrase one of my writing profs told me in university–

WRITE THE WAY YOU SPEAK

And if you’re writing fiction, write the way your characters speak.

  • Use simpler words. The complicated one may sound intelligent but it will also pull your reader out of the story. Who actually uses the word therefore in conversation? Let’s throw out the academic language we worked so hard to learn to impress teachers and professors, and let’s write for real people.
  • Use fewer words. Write the simplest, least number of words possible.
  • Use contractions. Would you say “I am tired”? No. You’d say “I’m tired.” So write that.
  • Use slang. It’s okay. If your character is a high schooler they won’t always use proper terminology. If your character is an old man from Jamaica or New Orleans he will use Patois phrases.

Let’s rebel against the formal, stuffy and overly long way we were told to write in school and write as real people for real people.

It’ll make our copywriting, our business letters, and our novels better.

Our writing will be more realistic, more confident, more accessible, more pleasurable, and more likely to be read.

What writing tips do you have?

  1. “Show, don’t tell” is such dated advice (was it Forster or James that offered this rule originally?). If you’re writing standard prose and tired narratives, then you will have more opportunities to exercise that rule; however, if you are imaginative and daring in your writing (choice of narrator, structure of narration, layers of reality, altering viewpoints, voices, tenses, etc.) then you might find “telling” to be your best way to write. I think back to Le Nouveau Roman in the fifties when telling was everything: there was no plot, no narrative, no dialogue; then LNR was followed by the postmoderns and all the rules were flushed. There is a lot of fiction that just doesn’t follow nice rules of writing.

    One thing that came from LNR (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Pinget, etc.) was what you might consider instead of that old rule: try to make your prose less metaphoric and more concrete. The problem LNR faced was in removing the authorial (or narrative) commentary from the text. So your example—he was clumsy—is made more direct by—he dropped the ball. The narrator makes no comment on the character’s coordination but simply tells the reader that the ball is dropped and the reader must decide for themselves whether the character is clumsy or not.

    You can never get away from metaphor but if you think about it, metaphor is a form of comment about the events of the text (tight as a drum: I’m telling you how tight it is, not showing you). Still it’s a good exercise to try to write without using figurative language. Be direct, concrete … damn, concrete is metaphoric … see, writing is hard.

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