ADVICE ON STYLE
The fundamental challenge for any amateur writer is knowing where to direct his reader’s focus, and every element of style serves this one and only sole directive: to draw the reader’s attention to the significant and away from the unnecessary. Thus bad writing is always bad for the same reason: it’s distracting.
With that in mind, we have compiled the following list. These "errors" appear in almost every story we reject. Contributors would be well advised to study them.
Too many stories take place in a blank, unidentifiable setting. Characters seem to live in a void or a place so nondescript it could be either England or India, Manhattan or rural Minnesota. In certain circumstances, this ambiguity can be advantageous, but most stories benefit from the verisimilitude generated by a detailed, fully realized setting.
Amateur writers often use casual, even juvenile, language in situations calling for grim formality. Middle-aged professionals shouldn’t sound like teenagers, and narrators—even when they are teenagers—should speak clearly, accurately, and intelligently. Certain stories might call for the use of slang, but few writers can use our contemporary spoken language without sounding ignorant.
Dialect can bring life to otherwise flat characters to life, but it ensnares more writers than it helps. Dialects and accents are notoriously difficult to capture without sounding cheesy or racist. Particularly vulnerable, historical fiction and fantasy often depict societies without a written record, making it impossible to know how those peoples actually talked. The use of the Queen’s English, being unobtrusive, is preferable to the clumsy use of faux medieval speech.
Dialogue doesn’t exist to convey boring, everyday exchanges. It exists to capture emotional conversations between characters that would sound lifeless if simply paraphrased by a narrator. Greetings, goodbyes, and chitchat bore readers, and though well meaning, writers who record them in order to accurately reflect modern speech risk annoying their readers.
Every book on writing warns aspiring authors to avoid stereotypes, and most writers have responded accordingly. Rarely will today's reader encounter a traditional stereotype in a modern work, yet contemporary stereotypes, such as the eccentric professor, the slovenly husband, and the misunderstood teenager, appear in abundance. Writers need to be consciously aware of their biases, whether they are recognized as such by society or not.
By nature, writing is an attempt at self-examination and self-expression, but to attract an audience, writers must do more than rant about their views, attack strawmen, or lament their own unhappiness. In all honesty, few writers have led lives interesting enough to read about, and most would benefit by focusing on compelling stories rather than endlessly exploring their own thoughts and feelings.
A poorly chosen word can spoil a story. It sticks in the reader’s mind for pages, easily overpowering rich characterization and vivid imagery. Unfortunately, most conspicuously ill-chosen words have been consciously chosen by the writer in a misguided attempt to sound knowledgeable or poetic. Effective writing rarely draws attention to itself and never does so for no reason. Unusual word choice should be reserved for those situations in which the writer needs to draw the reader’s attention to something emotionally significant.
Writers often use details to either build suspense or alert the reader to things of consequence. When writers describe something for no reason, they slow down the pace and distract the reader. Aspiring authors often include unnecessary details about things simply because they like them, resulting in lengthy, boring descriptions of sexy women, Ford Mustangs, and fashionable clothes.
Powerful, thought-provoking works are often built around strongly held political or religious sentiments. Assuming they treat opposing views with serious consideration, they can even appeal to those who reject their fundamental premise. Irrelevant asides, however, in which the writer pauses to rant about his social, political, or religious views tend to exasperate the reader. In a deeply divided society like ours, a writer can only depend upon a small minority for support and goodwill. Everyone else will be irritated.
Neurotics aside, most people tend to accept misfortunes with a degree of stoicism. Too many fictional characters, however, respond with hysteria by cursing, screaming, or attacking their antagonists. How tiresome they can be! Writers need to convey the seriousness, the horror even, of the obstacles facing their protagonists, but it should be conveyed subtly, without resorting to theatrics.
There’s rarely any benefit to be gained by writing confusing dialogue, and readers shouldn’t have to reread dialogue merely to unravel the identities of the speakers. Identifiers, such as “he said” or “she asked,” are unobtrusive and often helpful. While some seasoned writers can dismiss them, relying exclusively on their ability to craft distinctive voices, few amateur writers can. Aspiring authors might gain by making the attempt, but during the editing process, they should consider adding the necessary identifiers.
Amateur writers, whose literary tastes often outstrip their literary ability, often pursue subtly to the point that their meaning becomes unclear. From an editor’s perspective, few submissions are too obvious to be satisfying. A great many, however, are baffling. Few readers enjoy deliberately abstruse works, and a straightforward fairy tale provides a better template for beginning writers than the cryptic ambiguities of the Modernists.
Writers can use sex to explore themes, ranging from self-doubt to ecstasy, that might be unreachable through other means. Sex can, however, prove too powerful. Graphic sex scenes and loving descriptions of breasts and thighs can linger longer in a reader’s mind than well-rounded characters or well-crafted dialogue. If used gratuitously, they can overshadow the rest of the story.
Amateur writers often struggle to maintain a consistent tone. A melancholy story may morph into a horrific one or swing back and forth between grim tragedy and uncaring objectivity. Humor, in particular, can disrupt a story’s tone, injecting a shot of levity into a situation otherwise serious or grave. Few professional writers can unobtrusively weave humor into their stories, and unless the piece is a consciously humorous one, jokes, puns, and slapstick should be avoided.
Historical fiction may be the most difficult genre to write—or write well. Historical details should be, contrary to instinct, sparse. Constant descriptions of castles, saddles, and armor can quickly overwhelm the story itself, boring the reader and reminding him of the artificial nature of the narrative. Unless a detail is crucial to the plot, it should be left out. An even worse mistake is describing historical scenes from a contemporary viewpoint, which only emphasizes the artificiality of the work.
Aside from the most careless of writers, most aspiring authors know to avoid anachronistic details, such as eyeglasses in the Dark Ages or tobacco in Roman Britain. A great many, however, cannot refrain from injecting their characters with contemporary feelings and attitudes. There were no libertarians in Tsarist Russia, and no neoconservatives in the service of Charlemagne. If present in a modern work, they will only betray the egoism and ignorance of the writer.
Many well-meaning academics urge aspiring authors to avoid long sentences, but like any aspect of writing, they can be used effectively by the skillful writer. Lengthy compound sentences can be used to slow down or speed up the pace, build tension, or draw attention to a phenomenon. Relying solely on short, simple sentences results in a crude, childish style.
Too often the careful reader detects characters, descriptions, phrases, and other elements borrowed from popular culture. Doing so breaks the illusion of reality the author has so painstakingly crafted and reveals his lack of imagination. Worse, these borrowings distract the reader, leaving him wondering where he has seen or heard the familiar passage.
Bland writing, shorn of any artistry, is its own problem, but the aspiring author would be well advised to avoid poetic language. Most metaphors, similes, alliteration, and other elements can be expunged without affecting the story. If retained, they can seem pretentious and sophomoric. If the author decides to employ poetic language, he should choose his moment carefully. A single, well-chosen metaphor at a pivotal moment can amplify the sentiment. It achieves its power, in part, due to its contrast with the simplicity prevalent elsewhere in the text.
The majority of writers, aware of the social cost charged for ignoring political correctness, simply eschew controversial social issues in their genre fiction. The end result, a projection of contemporary desires on imaginary or historical peoples, comes across as neutered and sterile. Some issues are, quite simply, too big for writers to comfortably ignore without rendering their writing juvenile.
Horror, in particular, relies on atmosphere and tone for its effectiveness. While some writers can be faulted for their excesses, relying on purple prose to excite their readers, others go too far in the opposite direction, creating bland, analytical narratives. In most cases, especially those in the horror genre, the story should begin with an objective tone that gradually becomes emotional as the narrator’s excitement grows.
Few short stories can carry the burden of a long-winded aside. The form is simply too short, and any asides run the risk of disrupting the plot and interfering with the delicate clockwork that is pacing. If a character is a widow, that designation alone may be enough information. The story of her husband's death is extraneous.
Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, require the reader to know information that, unless the author informs him of it, he has no way of knowing. Aspiring authors sometimes inform the writer of relevant facts by inserting blocks of exposition at every opportunity. In all honesty, much of the details can be left unwritten, for the reader rarely “needs” to know it. If done subtly, the exposition may be conveyed through dialogue, but this often leads to characters discussing information—such as the temperature aboard a space station—that both characters should already know. Instead, relevant details should be seamlessly woven into the tale itself. If the colony is frigid, the characters should be seen rubbing their hands, dressing in layers, and sitting beside furnaces. No discussion is necessary.
Misguided advice has convinced many amateur writers to eschew adjectives and adverbs altogether. Such dogmatism ignores the obvious: not every situation calls for prose that reads like Ernest Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson. Certain circumstances, such as a poor man’s description of a medieval harem, practically beg for lavish, richly textured prose. A more pragmatic approach to writing would ban modifiers that don’t contribute to the meaning of the phrase, such as a “huge” elephant or a “menacing” scowl, while embracing those modifiers that do. “Walking slowly” is clearly different than “shuffling” or “strolling” or “ambling,” and only a very ill-advised writer would choose the latter merely to avoid using an adverb.
Few amateur writers can, relying wholly on abstraction, effectively describe a scene. More often than not, the result is pretentious, ridiculous even. Even when done well, it’s often ineffective in helping the reader draw a picture of events. Most aspiring writers would be better served by painting with concrete details. Presented with a description of a house’s most salient architectural details and a monologue about how the house makes people feel, most readers will find the one useful and the other silly.
Most aspiring authors have been warned more than enough to avoid flat characters. The truth, however, is that most beginning writers can only craft a limited number of well-rounded characters. Limiting the total number is preferable to submitting a story stocked with seemingly identical individuals. Writers should avoid the all-too-common practice of simply inverting stereotypes, which leads to elderly pranksters, wise children, and scholarly criminals.
Many amateur writers have no idea how or when to use description. Some burden their stories with pointless descriptions of each and every object that the narrator encounters while others never adequately describe anything, which results in a surreal, dreamlike narrative devoid of anything concrete. Description should be used, and only used, to draw the reader’s eye to something significant that the author doesn’t want him to miss. Generalized descriptions, which might refer to a Gothic farmhouse as a “large house with a porch and a tower,” are seldom sufficient and indicate a lack of knowledge on the author’s part.
The pace of a story, regardless of genre, rarely varies from tale to tale. The tension slowly builds as more and more obstacles confront the protagonist; the climax only comes when neither the protagonist nor the reader can withstand any more. Most aspiring authors, however, rush to the climax before the reader is emotionally invested in the fate of the protagonist. In the worst cases, the pace skips erratically. A confrontation between two characters occupies no more than a few lines of dialogue while irrelevant details occupy a page or more. When appropriate, long sentences can help by acting as montages: they can convey an enormous amount of information in only a few short lines. Pace, like any other element of writing, is a tool writers use to draw attention to something. Important events occur slowly, painfully slowly, while unimportant details fly by.
The good people—amongst whom I naturally class myself—feel that everything is miraculous; they are continually amazed at the strangeness of the proportion of all things. The bad people, or scientists as they are sometimes called, maintain that nothing is properly an object of awe or wonder since everything can be explained.