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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.