Monday, October 27, 2014

Invisible Writing

Last week, I talked about how great books make a lasting impression on the reader, as well as how seamless and invisible writing contributes to that. This week, I want to talk about what makes writing invisible and seamless.

The definition of invisible is, quite simply, that it’s not visible. It’s not noticeable. It’s not front and center. I think of invisible writing as similar to stagehands during a play. You see them occasionally, when there’s a necessary set change that’s not possible to do behind the curtain, but they’re never seen for long, and the audience hardly gives them a second thought. The focus is always on the actors and the story. The stagehands are absolutely necessary, though, because, without them, the play would fall apart. The audience just can’t see everything they do. Not unless they look for them specifically.

When I write, I strive for ‘stagehand’ writing. Basically, I want my words to bring out the story and only the story. I don’t want my readers to notice the words I used unless they are specifically looking at them. With that in mind, these are the guidelines I follow when I write.

Avoid Repetition
If you convey an idea or concept in one paragraph, don’t do it again three paragraphs later. This makes the reader feel like you are hammering it into their heads, and it generally puts him off. Instead, keep the paragraph that most effectively conveys what you want to say and ditch the other.

You also need to be careful with words that sound similar. If you use the word ‘though’ in one sentence, don’t use ‘although’ in the same paragraph. Or even in the next paragraph. Instead, grab your handy thesaurus and find another word that sounds completely different but conveys the same meaning.

Streamline Your Sentences
Don’t use two words where one will do, especially when one of the words paints a vivid image on its own. One word that does the job of two has more impact on the reader, and gives the impression of clean and sharp prose. For example, we know a skyscraper is tall so there is no need to include that descriptor. Instead, we need to know about its uniqueness, and, most importantly, it’s impact on the story and characters.

Filler words can also clutter up a sentence, and most are not needed. Some examples are very, just, a lot, actually, pretty (as in pretty good or pretty close), really, rather, etc. Unnecessary prepositions fall into the same category. For example, ‘At around’ is a common phrase, but both words are not necessary. They also conflict with each other: ‘at’ implies precision, and ‘around’ implies estimation. Use one or the other, but not both. In general, watch how you use prepositions. Most times, there are better ways to convey your ideas.

Avoid Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs are the easiest way to get your ideas across to the reader. They are also weaker and, most often, unnecessary. Instead, use a stronger verb that conveys the same meaning and gives the reader a clear image of what’s happening. For example:
“What are you doing?” she said shrilly.
Vs.
“What are you doing?” she screeched.
The first example uses two words where one will do, which is illustrated in the second example. It can be hard to find the right verb, but, when you do, your words will come alive. The same principle applies to adjectives.

Once you’ve gone through your story over and over and are finally in your last stage of revision, look at each word and assess whether it is necessary, whether it is doing the job it’s supposed to do. All of these things will give you a vivid story.

5 comments:

MargaritaSaona said...

Great advice! I will share it with my students.

Tabitha Olson said...

Thanks! I hope they find it useful!

Kiersi said...

Great post! You're really right—the best writing is simple, streamlined writing.

Other great filler words to kill:
"just"
"seems"

And words that put distance between the reader and the character:
"heard"
"saw"
"felt"

I once trimmed 500 words from a manuscript just by slashing a few of those.

TiaLevings said...

My biggest pet peeve and the moment writing becomes visible for me is repeated words, usually adjectives or adverbs, on the same page or in the same scene. I instantly read back to where I just read it before and it breaks the spell I was under with the story. :nails scritch down a chalkboard:

Great post.

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