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
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?