#amwriting: Voice vs lazy writing

Epic Fails signI find it aggravating when I read a book where the characters “begin” to do things.

If you watch them in real life, people don’t “begin” to pick up that knife. They don’t “start” to walk away. They pick up the knife. They walk away.

Using “begin” and “start” to commence a “doing” scene is a lazy writing habit we have to train ourselves out of. We are thinking the tale, and writing it as it falls from our head. Because we get into storytelling mode, the dog begins to bark, and the neighbors start to complain.

A narrative where people begin and start to do things separates the reader from the story.  And when we are in storytelling mode we pepper our manuscript with too many descriptors, and give too much information. All first drafts will have some instances of lazy writing–not because we’re lazy. It’s quicker to write your story down in this fashion and it gets the thoughts out on the paper before they vanish.

But these shortcuts are what we clean up in the second draft.

I let the words flow as they will when I am writing the story down. When an idea has me in its grip I don’t worry too much about phrasing. This is why first drafts are uneven and rough, and why they shouldn’t be shared with too many people. Sharing short snippets in your writing group is one thing, but for the love of Tolstoy, don’t publish that mess!

At the first draft stage, the most important thing is to simply get it out of your head and onto the paper.  Once that is done, it’s time to go through the ms on a paragraph by paragraph basis and tweak the weak sentences, making the story become in reality what it is in your mind’s eye. This is the second draft, where we wrangle the tale into something a reader might want to “test-drive” for us.  It may take more than two drafts to get a manuscript to that point. At least for me it frequently does.

Capote_cold_bloodEvery author, no matter how famous, has a unique way of getting the work out of their heads and on to the paper. Every author then has to go through the second phase of the process, which involves both cutting out whole sections, and tweaking what remains until you can’t see the forest for the trees.  Truman Capote said, ”Editing is as important as the writing. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Capote died at the age of sixty having written one of the most highly acclaimed works of our time,  In Cold Blood.  He’s gone, but his words live on and when you look at his work, you can see he put his philosophy to practice.

I regularly read the works of other authors. But what makes some work a memorable experience? Why are others are okay, but lacking something?

It’s not only a great plot, crucial though it is. Even bad books often have a good idea for a plot.

Also, it’s not just having great characters, although no book is worth reading without them, in my opinion.

Every gripping story has both of those crucial things, but also has a third thing, something that is indefinable and can’t be duplicated: a style that is recognizably that particular author’s voice.

That combination is what hooks and lands me as a reader.

These things are the holy trinity that combine to make a classic tale:

  • gripping plot
  • great characters
  • unique voice

What is “Voice”? Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

Use your voice to create strong sentences that intrigue and capture the reader.  Passive, telling sentences lose the reader’s interest.

We all feel a flash of anger when certain flaws in our work are pointed out. However, when an editor corrects your lazy writing habits they aren’t trying to change your voice. They’ve seen something good in your work, and they’re pointing out places where you can tighten it up and grow as a writer. Remember, voice is how you use syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, and dialogue.

You have a unique voice. Hopefully, in your writing you also follow the commonly agreed upon rules of the English language (if your work is written in English). We shouldn’t write the way we speak. Our casual conversation is sprinkled with words and phrasing we shouldn’t use in our writing except in the dialogue portion of the manuscript. After all, we want our dialogue to feel comfortable when it is read aloud.

Lazy writers

  • Use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • “Tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • Swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • Ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • Have their characters natter on about nothing just to kill time. It doesn’t show them as human, it shows them as boring.

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullWhether you write essays, novels, technical pieces, or flash fiction you should write something new every day, even if it is only a short passage. Writing daily develops your skills and over time your prose becomes leaner and your voice becomes well-defined. Richard Bach, author of the amazing novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said, “Never stop trying. A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

Tighten that prose. Comb the manuscript for telling words and be sparing with descriptors.

And be prepared to see red ink when the manuscript comes back from the editor despite your efforts to craft perfect prose.

That is just a part of this process.



Filed under Books, Publishing, writing

6 responses to “#amwriting: Voice vs lazy writing

  1. David P. Cantrell

    I feel like you’re writing solely for my benefit. The Lazy writer was embarrassed that he’d been found out.


  2. Stephen

    I began reading this as I started my wait at the car repair shop. Contrary to my expectations the transmission started jerking as it shifted, which made me begin to think I probably should get it checked. So as I began to slip out my credit card from my wallet, I started to have a bad feeling. Yes, rejected. Fortunately for me, the other card which recently began charging me a higher rate started to be my friend. The rest, as they usually begin to say about now, is the start of history.


  3. Loved this article. My favorite thing that I’ve read today 🙂