Wish You Were Here – On Writing with Style

Last Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of my writing group, and I was fortunate enough to be the person chairing the meeting. I put together a workshop titled ‘Wish You Were Here’ and thought I’d share it on The Happy Logophile.

When people read my writing, the number one piece of positive feedback I get is that they felt like they were “really there”. I often have people say that they could picture everything that happened perfectly. Since I have a tendency to err on the side of “too little” when it comes to description (I skip over almost all description when I read), I take this as a real compliment. There are three stylistic methods that I use to achieve this.

Note: These are elements of style. There is nothing grammatically wrong with any of the “problems” that I’m going to present.

Passive Voice

Good writing should be immediate. You know you’re doing it right when the reader feels like they’re in the middle of the action.

Writing in passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is the recipient, rather than the source, of the action. When you write in passive voice, there’s no immediacy to the action. Instead of being scared, or excited, or involved, the reader feels like they’re reading a report about events that happened somewhere else, to someone else. That isn’t to say you can never have a passive-voice sentence in your work, but (like adverbs) they should be rare.

By removing Passive Voice, you change a paragraph like this:

The village was razed by the dragon’s fiery breath. It wasn’t expected to happen so early in the season. There was no choice. A warning had to be issued by the King, and sent across the mountains with a messenger. If they were lucky, it would be read before the boy was eaten.

Into this:

The dragon razed the village with its fiery breath. No one expected it to happen so early in the season. The King had no choice. He had to issue a warning and send a messenger across the mountains. If they were lucky, the dragon would read it before eating the boy.

Effect before Cause

Good writing should be easy. You know you’re doing it right when the reader doesn’t have to stop and think about what’s happening.

Every time you put effect before cause in your writing, the reader has to stop and rethink the sentence. This slows down the action, and can feel quite disjointed. Again, there are times when you may decide to put the effect before the cause, but do so with caution.

Bu putting cause before effect, you turn this:

He jumped back when the snake hissed. He fell over when he hit the railing behind him. Pain blossomed through his body when his ankle twisted. He knew he’d need to get to a hospital when the pain hadn’t subsided after a few minutes. He called an ambulance after taking his phone from his pocket. The snake slithered back behind a rock after watching his antics through the front of its glass cage.

Into this:

The snake hissed and he jumped back. He hit the railing behind him and fell over, twisting his ankle. Pain blossomed through his body. The pain hadn’t subsided after a few minutes, so he knew he’d need to get to a hospital. He took his phone from his pocket and called an ambulance. The snake watched his antics through the front of its glass cage and then slithered back behind a rock.

Filter Words

Good writing should be invisible. You know you’re doing it right when the reader doesn’t remember the words you used, they just remember what happened.

 Filter words are words such as realised, thought, saw, looked, heard, smelled, wondered, hoped, and felt. They are words that distance the reader from the story. (They’re often referred to as Distancing Words for that reason.) When you include a lot of filter words in your writing, the reader will be constantly reminded that they’re only reading/hearing about what happened, rather than experiencing it.

By removing filter words, you turn this:

Megan looked down and wondered what would happen if she jumped. The river looked dark and uninviting below her. She saw a car coming across the bridge and quickly decided to press herself against the nearby pylon. She hoped they hadn’t seen her. She figured her life was complicated enough without a stranger interfering. Then she heard the car slow and stop. Damn, she thought. She felt more trapped than ever.

Into this:

Megan looked down. What would happen if she jumped? The river was dark and uninviting below her. She looked up. There was  car coming across the bridge. Quickly, she pressed herself against the nearby pylon. Maybe they hadn’t seen her. Her life was complicated enough without a stranger interfering. The sound of the car slowed and stopped. Damn. She was more trapped than ever.

Look over your own writing, and see how often you use passive voice, filter words, or put effect before cause. Let me know what you find.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Wish You Were Here – On Writing with Style

  1. I just blogged about using too many filter words in my writing. I’m bad about it, and during my edits, I have to go back over it and make sure there aren’t too many filter words. I also try and avoid passive voice. I’ve never even thought about the effect before cause problem. I may have to look out for that one…

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I always think it’s funny when two people blog about the same topic, with apparently no connection between their decision to do so. I guess we must have both had the Write it Sideways post marinating in our brains for a while, and just got to the point when we were ready to write about it. 🙂

    As I said at my writer’s group, just remember that these things are best looked for in editing rather than writing. If you try too hard to avoid them when writing your first draft, it’s easy to get tied up in creating the “perfect” sentence and end up with nothing. Or maybe that’s just me. 🙂

    • I think it’s pretty funny too. Jody Moller and I did that not long ago talking about killing characters. But yes, that article has been on my mind, especially since I’m in the second draft of my WIP.

      And it’s not just you. I have a hard time editing while I’m on my first draft. I keep changing things, and then eventually, I get frustrated and set it aside. Since I’m re-writing my WIP, I feel like I’m at draft one again. I keep telling myself to get through this draft and then edit again. It’s a never ending process, editing.

  3. Great Post Jo! Reinforces the fact that I really need to find myself a writing group.

    • Hey Jody, I tried to find a way to contact you directly via your blog, but coudn’t see an email address or contact button. I have a suggestion for you if you’d like to shoot me an email via my contact page.

  4. Wow, this was a very nice primer on style.

    Some things I noticed, in particular: in the passive voice section, switching to active voice actually also makes it clear who the recipient of the message was meant to be (i.e. the dragon). In the earlier version it only points out that the king is sending a message in hopes it gets ready (by someone) before the boy is eaten. That’s a pretty useful lesson in clarity.

    The last section on “Filter words” also, for me, was the most dramatic improvement in style. It really put me in the mind of the character. That’s how I try to write as well, though I know I often fail. What might be helpful is to have a complete list of such “filter words” so I could search my manuscripts for them and find ways to remove them and make the prose much more personal…

    • Thanks, Stephen.

      I agree, I think removing filter words makes the biggest difference overall, and really make the reader feel like they’re involved in the story rather than watching from the outside. There’s a great article at http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakening-your-fiction/ which lists the most common filter words as:

      to see, to hear, to think, to touch, to wonder, to realize, to watch, to look, to feel, to feel like, to decide, to sound, and (possily) to know

      We’re often taught as kids to use filter words, because they can sound “nicer”. (“I saw Mark do it.” is nicer than “Mark did it.”, and allows for possible discussion.) But an english lecturer pointed out that in fiction writing, they’re just prop words that stop you achieving your full potential. When you’re writing, you don’t want to tell people what _might have_ happened, you want to show them what _is_ happening.

  5. Great topic! I’m re-reading an older MS and I’m impressed by how well I stripped out ALL the filter words. Yay! But, now I’m sprinkling a few more in. Why? Because this particular story is for 9 year olds, and I think a few of my paragraphs could be more easily understood with a couple of lazy/telling sentences. People knock the writing of JK Rowling, in particular the many adverbs. But who’s complaining about the adverbs? Not the kids who eat it up! They like knowing that someone spoke a line of dialog “grumpily.” No Pullitzer Prize for you, JK Rowling! I hope all your mountains of money can ease your broken heart!

    I really struggle with the literary guidelines versus the paperbacks folks like to buy at the supermarket. Have you read a romance novel lately? GOSH! Not knocking the genre, but I read a best-selling one recently and I swear the first chapter used every single cliche, from beginning with the character waking up, to her describing herself while looking in the mirror, to head-hopping POV, to zillions of the above-mentioned filter words. And it’s a best-seller?

    Sorry this is turning into a bit more a tirade than a comment. 🙂 My point is that I used to not allow any filter words, but now I’ll allow a few, especially if it’s the cleanest way.

    Specifically, I struggle with noises and smells.

    “The scent of bacon wafts in from the kitchen.” vs “I smell bacon.”

    I find that the second sentence makes me smell the bacon in a way the first one doesn’t. What do you think?

    • Hahaha. Yes, I’m sure poor J.K. Rowling cries herself to sleep every night…

      I guess it all comes back to the fact that a good story trumps literary style when it comes to genre fiction. Which is not to say that style is unimportant, or that you can’t have both, but the majority of readers are more concerned with what happens, than with how many adverbs there are per page.

      I don’t think all filter words are evil. But, like everything else, if you know the “rules”, it’s easier to break them in such a way that they enhance the story. Congrats on having figured out where to use them in your MS to the best effect!

  6. Good advice! I especially like the section on filter words, I know I am certainly guilty of that all the time.
    I am not that great with description, I actually wrote all of my book and didn’t describe what one single character looked like. It’s something that I really need to work at. 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful! 🙂

      I’m not great with (or a fan of) description either, so I tend to think “Does it matter what colour the paint is? Does it matter how long her hair is? Does it matter what type of shoes he’s wearing?” and then let the readers use their imagination for anything that isn’t necessary for the plot. It seems to work.

  7. Hi, Jo. I don’t know why I didn’t see this before!

    I think your examples are very clear and easy to understand. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Writing Progress: Week Ending September 17, 2011 « The Undiscovered Author

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