Writing is hard work.
It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel, a short story or an article–if you want to write great material, there are always elements on which you can’t compromise.
Think of the last time you cracked the cover of a book and were appalled by the poor quality of the writing. What factors caused you, as the reader, to see the writing as lazy?
How can you avoid the same pitfalls in your own work?
Here are some common ways in which you might be falling into lazy habits:
Cliches and Idioms
A cliche is an expression that has become so overused, it’s lost its novelty. An idiom is a commonly used expression that has a literal meaning different from its intended meaning.
Cliches and idioms are so commonplace, they tend to hold very little power. They are the lazy writer’s way out of having to think of a better way to say something.
For example, which of the following statements is more evocative?
- She was nervous about driving because she was as blind as a bat.
- She polished her glasses on her sleeve a second time, and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
Both statements present adequate information, but the first statement uses a cliche to do it and the second (stronger) statement does not.
The worst kind of characters are those who are nothing more than one-dimensional stereotypes. You know the kind: the bleached-blonde bimbo; the handsome jock; the fat-but-smart girl.
Stereotypes arise from erroneous ideas about particular types of people. In truth, there aren’t ‘types’ of people so much as there are individuals who sometimes share similar tastes, styles, motivations, and beliefs. To create a character based on a stereotype is the lazy way out of effective characterization.
For example, your story might feature a high school cheerleader. While it might be tempting to make her blonde, ask yourself why she’s blonde.
- Does she dye her hair because she feels pressure from her friends to fit in?
- Is she a natural blonde, and does that fact give her a sense of power or entitlement?
Real people have real motivations for the things they think, say and do. Life-like characters are the same.
Note: The same rules apply to non-fiction books and articles. Whenever you’re writing about a person, you still need to communicate to your reader what makes your subject unique, and what motivates them.
This is my biggest pet peeve of all.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s prose that seems to have been plunked down on the page with no thought of its clarity, rhythm or general effectiveness. Yet, many books are published (just check out your local library) in spite of poor writing.
It’s difficult to say what exactly makes prose ‘clunky,’ except perhaps that we can define it as a lack of fluidity. The words just don’t sound right. You get the sense you’re reading a first draft.
One specific thing I dislike is unnecessary telling instead of showing. This is a form of clunky writing because it gives little or no thought to better ways of expressing key information.
- His father was a rough sort of man who never had anything nice to say.
- “Why couldn’t you be more like your brother?” His father’s familiar words stung as much as ever.
Which of these examples is showing, and which is simply telling?
Clunky prose is forgivable in a first draft, but not in your final copy. Even if you can manage to get yourself published without polishing your language, do you really want to?
How Lazy Is Your Writing?
Take a good look at your latest writing project. See any of these lazy mistakes?
Because they’re so ingrained in our language, it’s surprising how many cliches and idioms can sneak into your writing. When editing, be particularly vigilant about replacing them.
What about your characters? Can you make them more life-like?
Is your prose thoughtful and fluent?
Is your writing lazy? If so, what do you plan to do about it?
Join the discussion
Jeffrey Tang says
Something I would add to the Stereotypical Characters section: be careful not to swing too far to the other side. Some authors create stereotypical characters in the way you described, Suzannah, but others try too hard to be non-stereotypical, and create artificial characters as a result.
Defining clunky prose is pretty hard … but I'm not sure telling vs. showing falls under that category. I'd love to hear your thoughts on developing style and rhythm in your writing.
I agree, it's totally possible to swing too far in the opposite direction, trying too hard to be non-stereotypical just for the sake of it. I think you can sometimes use stereotypes to your advantage if you give your characters clear motivations.
I read a book recently that totally blew me away–not because I loved it, but because there was a character in it I just couldn't wrap my head around. It's called "His Illegal Self," by Peter Carey. The whole way through the story, I kept asking myself if the character Trevor was a good guy or a bad guy. The reason I couldn't make up my mind is because he was neither stereotypically good or bad –he was life-like, with both very good and very bad attributes. It was a challenge to me, as a writer, to think about how to make my own characters more realistic.
As for the telling vs showing, fair enough 🙂 I certainly could have put it in a totally separate category to clunky prose (and maybe I should have for clarity's sake), but as I mentioned, I feel clunkiness can include any writing that gives "little or no thought to better ways of expressing key information."
Must also write a future post on 'developing style and rhythm,' as you suggest.
You blog sometimes poses a formidable challenge for me to read – every time I come here I realize I am making horrid writing mistakes. I'd almost rather relax and bask in my ignorance. (ha ) 🙂
I am learning a lot from you, and I appreciate your direction here. Thank you!
Have you published any books or short stories or are there alternate places I can go to read your prose? I quite enjoy your tips, tricks, and writing style.
It's great that you feel 'formidably challenged' by my posts! We all make horrid writing mistakes–myself included–and I understand the feeling of looking back on previous attempts thinking there's just no hope.
The only way to get better is to learn more and practice. Ignorance can be bliss, indeed, but not if you want to get published 🙂
As for your last question, I gave up on short stories over a year ago (Australia has very few literary magazines, unlike my homeland Canada, and postage was getting hefty!), and I'm aiming for the top (i.e. publishing a novel). Hopefully one day soon you'll see me in print.
Writer's Round-About says
Fantabulous tips, Suzannah!
I most certainly try to write creative, compelling articles and stories–I hope I'm succeeding! 😀
I have worked very hard at my writing. I've researched, read, studied, and have written, written, written a LOT. So, I do really throw myself into it. If my work appears as if it's lazily written, it certainly isn't because I haven't applied myself.
I'm sure you are most definitely writing 'creative and compelling articles and stories.' I think writers know when they're applying themselves to the best of their potential, so if you're already doing that, great!
Yeah! Thank you for the reminder. I'm deep in final (I so hope) revisions on a novel now and ripping through lines of prose like a madman with a weed wacker. In the heat of writing, when we're drafting and plugging away, it's easy to let bad writing hit the page. I think it's okay to do so. What's important though is making sure it doesn't stay there.
Congratulations on making it to the end of your first (or subsequent) draft of your novel! That's the hardest part.
You're right about it being okay to let bad writing hit the page, as long as you make sure it doesn't stay there. Sometimes we need to put down the first thing that comes into our heads in order to get past a mental block, or to simply get the framework of your book down on paper. In editing, we have a great opportunity to go back and fix all those areas.
All the best!
This is a really great post. I have recently fallen in love with writing. I am only beginning to write for fun as appose to the papers and projects I've done in the past. I look forward to indulging in more of your informative posts. Please keep 'em coming.
Making the switch from writing academically to writing creatively can be challenging and fun. Best of luck with the transition, and I hope you'll continue to find quality advice here.
Good pointers. In the first example to avoid cliche I saw you have exactly described the situation. I feel that makes it more interesting cause readers will get more involved.. they can actually visualize someone gripping the steering wheel etc.. I find that a good way to write stuff where its the actual description.
Thanks for your comment. Cliches have a bad rap for a reason: they're lazy! You're right–finding an alternative way to describe something is usually the better option.
Thanks for the tips, Suzannah. I think the best way to identify clunky prose is to read your work aloud. If your tongue trips over the text, you’ll know it lacks fluidity. This practice also makes it easier to find typos. It slows you down so you see every word.
.-= Read Andrea´s last article ..The ESTP Writing Personality: Bold Action =-.
Great tip, Andrea! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Sorrento Aishikami says
I see I found a source of valuable knowledge for my humble self to make my writing better (and maybe finish something finally :))
I absolutely agree with what you put here. Especially on stereotypical characters.
I try to make my characters original – not an easy task, but worth doing. I see no sense in creating one more book hero that makes the readers stop and think “whoa, have we met before?”
Balance is hard to find sometimes, because of the emotional connection I have to my writing. It’s a struggle, and I know I have so much to learn but I would not give it up for anything :).
I am glad that I have stumbled upon your blog.
Thanks, Sorrento! Glad you found Write It Sideways, and welcome to our fabulous community.