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Writing That Sounds Like Writing

Once a twenty-something Catholic priest sat down across from me in a waiting area of an airport. He was wearing his long black cassock, but fiddling with his iPhone like a regular dude, which was pretty funny to watch.

An elderly lady scooted over to him. She peppered him with questions about which diocese he belonged to, and which seminary he attended, and whether he knew Father So-and-So.

The priest immediately snapped into padre mode. He sat up ramrod straight and started speaking in the kindly, formal way priests do in movies. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded like something he'd rehearsed. When he couldn't figure out what he was "supposed" to say, he'd just repeat in his best Wise Man's voice, "These are very interesting times. Very interesting times."

That was also pretty funny to watch.

People often slip into learned roles they think others expect them to play. Security guards who want to be seen as Authorities strut around in sunglasses with their thumbs hooked on their belt loops. Young managers who want to be seen as Professionals wear pointy-toed shoes and speak like they're in the cast of The West Wing.

And writers who want to be seen as Authors mimic the archaic styles of literary greats. This often results in what Elmore Leonard famously called writing that "sounds like writing."

What is writing that sounds like writing?

Writing that sounds like writing uses a lot of flowery adjectives and adverbs, clever wordplay, and million-dollar words in long compound-complex sentences. It prioritizes poetry and wit over coherence.

Here's a short example of this style. Its author shall remain unnamed, because I'm too embarrassed to admit it's me.

Leo Dawson stood outside the ballroom, carelessly fingering a carte de visite. A grainy face stared up at him from a miniature oval of black and white, as grim and washed out as the fog-choked streets of the city. He sighed and placed the photograph back in the engraved silver card case resting in his gloved palm. Then he snapped the hinge shut, slipped the case into his inner coat pocket, and nodded to the attendant. The heavy doors opened before him, sending a wave of bright lights and music crashing into the hall.

Leo stepped into the room, submerging himself in a sea of elegant gowns and dapper tailcoats. Feathers bobbled on coiled chignons and diamonds dangled from the ears below. High-heeled kid slippers and shined leather shoes scraped the floors in time to a lively waltz. The men and women twirling on the dance floor or chatting by the walls wore expressions on the spectrum from cheerful excitement to irritable exhaustion. Leo nodded to the ones he recognized with his face arranged in a tight-lipped smile, while the brain behind it counted down the minutes to freedom.

These are the first two paragraphs of WIP-B, which I fortunately aborted before I subjected anyone to the painful experience of reading it. After nearly finishing the first draft, I realized I was trying hard to be a great writer instead of trying hard to write a great book.

The language is needlessly convoluted and figurative.

When I wrote WIP-B, I pressured myself to be "creative" with every word. This resulted in convoluted sentences like "The men and women twirling on the dance floor or chatting by the walls wore expressions on the spectrum from cheerful excitement to irritable exhaustion."

I also used a heavy hand with figurative language. The point of metaphors, similes, allusions, and the like is to add layers of meaning in a short space. For example, "He huddled in a dim corner of the bar like a nervous rabbit" invokes the image of a small, twitchy, cowardly animal that might bolt at any second. The simile saves you the space of describing all that in detail.

But "a wave of bright lights" or "a sea of elegant gowns" adds little. These metaphors exist to show off what a great writer I am, not to convey additional information through imagery.

Sentences require multiple readings to understand.

The worst sentence in the passage is "Feathers bobbled on coiled chignons and diamonds dangled from the ears below." Even I needed to re-read it a couple of times to understand what I meant.

Here's an example of a sentence I could have written instead: "Elegant women danced with feathers in their hair and diamonds in their ears." This straightforward statement is easy to understand on the first pass. The reader would get the same mental image without needing to stop and go back to comprehend what's going on.

Nearly every sentence is compound or complex.

When Sweetie and critique partners read WIP-B, they missed important information because it was buried in long sentences full of commas, semicolons, and em dashes. Since then I've learned to appreciate the power of the simple sentence.

What I wrote in 2010
"Leo nodded to the ones he recognized with his face arranged in a tight-lipped smile, while the brain behind it counted down the minutes to freedom."

What I'd write now
"Leo made small talk with a tight-lipped smile. He stole a glance at his gold pocket watch. Forty-five minutes to freedom."

There's little difference in word count, but the second example seems much shorter because you can read the simple/nominal sentences much faster than you can the complex one.

Sometimes you want to use many complex and compound sentences to slow down the pace of a scene. But if every sentence is long and requires a lot of mental energy to understand, you'll tire readers out and they'll lose interest.

What's wrong with writing that sounds like writing?

Writing that sounds like writing is sneaky. It's the sort of style that earned you A+ grades in high school and college. Your friends and family will read a manuscript and say, "It's really well-written," or, "You're a very talented writer."

But they won't love it.

They won't be sucked in to the plot. They won't feel eager to turn the page. Their comments in the margins will betray impatience as the book drags on.

This is because writing that sounds like writing gets in the way of the story. It's self-aware and hard to read. Writers who write this way are like actors who overact. By putting the spotlight on themselves instead of the story, they make it difficult for the audience to suspend disbelief.

Of course, some readers like writing that sounds like writing. I see it often in literary, historical, and high fantasy novels. Many fans of those genres would agree with NPR book reviewer Jason Sheehan, who said, "All you have to do is write the best sentence you've ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something."

But for most people, a great story is paramount and gorgeous language is optional, not the other way around. Most read to find out what happens, to connect with the characters and feel excitement and joy and despair along with them. The most damning criticism a non-literary novel can receive is "boring." Writing that sounds like writing is boring. Unless you're okay with readers putting your books in the Did Not Finish pile, kill it with extreme prejudice.

How can you avoid writing that sounds like writing?

The trick to avoiding writing that sounds like writing is simple, but difficult to put into practice. Stop trying to impress people.

While you're writing, take your ego out of your head and lock it away in another room. If it wriggles free and tries to sneak back in, say, "No!" in your most commanding tone of voice. Ego has no place in the writing process. It only pollutes your stories with purple prose by whispering, "I want people to call me the 21st-century Dickens. I want to receive glowing praise from the New York Times. I want to drink champagne at dinner parties with Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt."

Having pride in your skills is good and healthy. But pride can turn into a problem if you let it get in the way of your work, and if your desire to be a great writer prevents you from becoming one.

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