This is post #1 in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.
“I had a handful of students, especially in 7th and 8th grade, who had a logical, engaging tone when speaking and writing responses to readings. However, as soon as they started writing an essay, that was tossed aside in favor of an awkward, pseudo-academic tone. The result was not a better paper; it was a less interesting, more awkward paper. I’ve seen the same thing happen with new authors: they have a great voice that comes across in their emails, websites, etc., but once I start to edit their novel, I see that they’ve slipped into a “this is what novels sound like” voice. Don’t write in the voice everyone else is using or the one you think all novels use; write in your own voice, with the style that comes naturally.” –My original post
So what does it look like to write naturally instead of awkwardly? What, exactly, gets in the way? In this post, I identify two of the main problems that came up in my students’ unnatural writing as well as two of the big problems that make new authors’ work awkward. At the end, I share three quick fixes that will help you avoid and correct unnatural writing.
Student Problem #1: Overusing big words
I won’t say that writers, whether students or fiction authors, should never use big words. Sometimes, a big word is the right word, and reading wouldn’t be such a great tool for expanding vocabulary if all writers stuck with oversimplified language. However, it isn’t natural for students to use words like “contradistinguished” and “diversions” in the type of essay they write for me, and it comes across as stuffy, not as learned. Make sure your vocabulary level stays consistent with your target audience and the tone of your manuscript.
Student Problem #2: Overusing passive voice
Even as they crammed big words into their papers, the students watered down the action in their papers by slipping into an extremely dull overabundance of passive tense uses. I don’t know how many times I had to tell them to write “the passage demonstrates humor” instead of “humor is demonstrated in the passage” in their analyses, but it definitely came up a lot. I’m not sure whether they thought passive voice sounded more academic than writing plainly, but it doesn’t—it only weakens what the writer is saying. There are times when you’ll need to show things happening to your character instead of showing someone doing an action, but be very cautious not to use passive voice (subject is/was verbed) when active voice (subject verbs/verbed) is better.
Author Problem #1: Overusing absolute phrases
Many new authors are using absolute phrases without knowing what one is or that they are using them. An absolute is a modifier that tacks a noun and (usually) a participle phrase onto a sentence. In theory, this gives some context for the subject’s action by showing what else is happening. In the sentence “I worked on my blog, keys typing away merrily,” “keys typing away merrily” is an absolute. I see new authors use this structure constantly, but when have you ever heard anyone use it in spoken language? The absolute has its place, but it should be used sparingly. All modifying phrases should be supporting and expanding the main clause, not distracting from it.
Author Problem #2: Overusing descriptive adjectives and adverbs
It’s good to be descriptive, but many writers show little discretion in what they do or don’t describe in their narrative. For example, don’t tell me that your protagonist smoothly and easily slid into her lime green convertible that was parked along the weed-covered curb, alertly taking care not to allow her hair to be caught in the old grey seatbelt strap that was hanging limply next to the seat. I don’t want to know most of that, and neither does your reader! Do those details matter? Would your characters be thinking that way about the situation? Does it advance the story or slow it down? It’s much better to simply tell the reader that the protagonist slid into her car (assuming the sliding action is significant!) and then take a bit of time to describe the car only if she would be thinking about it.
Fix #1: Read good work instead of peer work.
I try to provide example papers for my students to understand what strong academic writing actually looks like. I also point them to engaging nonfiction pieces for style hints. If all they read is each other’s papers, they’ll never get better. They’ll think that what they see is the way to go, and they won’t have any inspiration to get out of the rut.
The same goes for writers. Don’t spend all your time reading books by your peers. Find books that have won awards, stand out to you as having a great voice, or were written by authors with a proven record. If all you read is books by other new writers who are making the same stylistic choices that you are, you’ll never see the problems with your chosen style. Read widely and read well—don’t get stuck in a weak style by never reading stronger work.
Fix #2: Read your writing out loud.
I always encourage my students to read their work out loud to themselves, even if it feels silly. Not only does it help them pick up grammar mistakes and typos that their eyes might miss on a glance, it helps them find places where their sentences falter and start to sound unnatural.
I encourage authors to do the same thing. Read your work out loud. If it sounds awkward, it is. If parts of your writing are difficult to read out loud, they’re difficult to read, period. Mark those sentences and rewrite them more clearly as you revise. Your readers will thank you, and when you look back on your own writing in the years to come, you’ll thank yourself, too.
Fix #3: Don’t try too hard.
If I had to get one point about writing like you talk across to writers, whether students or authors, it would be this. Don’t try so hard to write the “right” way! If you simply write like yourself and pay attention to the details that matter—the things that you really want to say—you’ll be on the right path to developing an engaging voice and writing solid sentences that sound natural and avoid all of the tell-tale awkwardness of new writers.