Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Most Confusing Advice People Give New Authors, and What It Means

Advice Everywhere

There are lots of "rules" out there dictating what separates good writing from bad. Why did I put "rules" in quotation marks? Because most of the time they are more like suggestions. They are good things to do, but if you want to venture away from that standard, it won't make your work intrinsically bad. In fact, most authors bend the rules all the time, even award winning and bestselling authors. So why are these rules so important if so many people disregard them?

The truth is, most successful authors don't disregard the rules completely. They bend them, and that is something quite different. Take grammar, for instance. This is a hotly debated topic in the indie publishing world. Basically you have your grammar snobs on one side and those who think grammar rules are arbitrary constructs that in no way impact one's ability to tell a good story on the other. Those who are all for breaking grammar rules will point to real, published, bestselling books that seem to happily ignore the world's definition of good grammar. They contain sentence fragments. They begin sentences with "but" or "and". They end sentences with prepositions. Yes, these authors are breaking some rules, but when you read their work it's obvious they knew the grammar rules before they broke them. When an author doesn't know the rules, it's painfully obvious, and the most common thing that can happen in that situation is the meaning of a sentence becomes unclear. In a profession where you use words to communicate ideas, clarity is vital. So, with grammar as well as all the other writing "rules", you have to know them, and know them well, before you can break them.

For more information about writing "rules", check out these lists of common mistakes amateur authors make:

My Confusion

When I self-published my first book last year I read a lot of books and articles on ways to improve my writing. I must admit, a lot of it was confusing in the beginning, but the one that consistently had me scratching my head was the warning against being too "wordy". Um...isn't writing all about words? Do I really want to start eliminating them from my books?

The point is not just to eliminate words. The point is to eliminate superfluous words. Those that add no meaning to your sentence. When someone tells you not to be wordy, it doesn't mean you can't be long-winded. It doesn't mean you can't be descriptive. It doesn't mean you can't take your time setting the mood and building the suspense. What it means is you shouldn't fill up your book with words that don't need to be there.

What "Wordy" Means

I'm going to humble myself. I'm going to analyze sentences from my own book, Amelia's Children, to show you how I could have made them less wordy if only I had known then what I know now. I'm not bashing my own writing. I love my book, and will continue to love it, but rereading it now I can see ways that the writing style could be improved, and I'm going to show you some of those ways.

Wordy sentence:
David had a hint of a laugh in his voice when he answered.

Improved sentence:
David answered with a faint laugh.

Why it was too wordy:
The reader doesn't need to know the laugh was in his voice. It's the emotion I'm trying to convey, not the physical aspect of how he laughs. Also, the first sentence contains the superfluous words "had" and "of". Sometimes those words are necessary, but if they can be eliminated they probably should be.

Wordy sentence:
David was sitting with his head resting against the back of the sofa.

Improved sentence:
David sat on the sofa, his head resting against the back.

Why it was too wordy:
The words "of" and "with" were unnecessary in communicating the meaning of this sentence.

Wordy sentence:
The excitement of the night was starting to wear off and I realized how exhausted I was.

Improved sentence:
The excitement of the night was wearing off and I was exhausted.

Why it was too wordy:
The word "started" is probably one of the most overused words in amateur writing. There are times when it is needed, but if the sentence means the same thing without it, get rid of it. Also, I don't need to tell the audience that my narrator "realized" she was exhausted. If she says she's exhausted, the reader knows she realized it.

Happy Rule-bending

As I said above, most writers bend the rules all the time. Some of these wordy sentences could work perfectly fine in a book, as long as every sentence is not overflowing with "of", "with", "was", "started", "had", etc. When there are several such sentences on every page the book begins to scream "amateur." Used in moderation, they're okay.

This was the most confusing advice I've ever received. What about you? Do you share my confusion, or do you struggle with some other aspect of writing. I would love to hear about it in a comment.

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