Too often, when a beginning writer sits before the page, he thinks, I must now sound like an AUTHOR, and adopts an artificially elevated tone. Just as with the constricted throat, this serves mostly to gum up the works, producing convoluted sentences weighed down with overinflated words – words that still bear the marks of the thesaurus from which they were fished.
This leaning toward unnatural language may be repaired rather easily, thanks to a trick I picked up from writing instructor Ted Gehrke. Find a recorder and speak a condensed version of your story into it. Then play it back, and write your words down on a page. This will probably not be a suitable first draft, but it will put you back in touch with a more natural, conversational style of language.
Speaking may also come in handy later, when you’re nearing something resembling a final draft. Speak your text out loud and listen to the flow, the music. If a sentence sounds awkward when you speak it, it will look awkward to the reader. As a drummer and singer, I sometimes take this process to a deep level. Just now, while composing a poem, I took the phrase “the allure of shapeless objects” and changed it to “the allure of shapeless forms.” Speak these out loud. Note the harsh syllables that comprise “shape-less ob-jects” (all those glottal stops and hissing esses). Hear how they’re balanced out by the smoother word “forms,” how pleasing it is to end the line on that m-z buzz.
Sparing the Five-Dollar Word
When it comes to vocabulary, use this as a rule of thumb: employ the simplest word that captures what you’re trying to say. If the meaning you’re trying to express demands a subtler distinction, then by all means use the fancier word – but make sure it’s a fancier word that you know. (Another reason for using a high-priced word would, again, be the music. In this very paragraph, I used “employ” to avoid repeating the word “use”, because if you use a word too often, the use of this word becomes anything but useful.)
Another lure for writers to use high-falutin’ language occurs when they are great fans of the genre, and they want to sound like the writers they most admire. But mimicry is a losing strategy, because the copy is never as good as the original. This approach also leads into the La Brea Tar Pits of Cliché. In judging short story contests, I can’t tell you how often a thriller begins with the protagonist returning to consciousness in a strange place, or a noir detective story begins with our hero drinking cheap whiskey in a dingy office when she walks in (“she had the kind of lips you could use to float down the Mississippi”). I can always count on these stories ending up in the reject pile, not automatically because of their clichéd openings but because writers who display such a lack of originality inevitably turn out to be weak writers in other ways, as well. (I once challenged myself to reform the rude-awakening cliché, beginning a story with my heroine waking up on a golf course, stark naked, a golf ball rolling to her feet, followed by her employer and a foursome of important clients – but alas, the rest of the story refused to take form.)
To a short-story judge, bleary-eyed after hours of reading artificial prose, there is nothing more bracing than to happen upon a story written in clear, unpretentious, everyday English. In the long run, the truly ambitious author’s search for a “voice” can only succeed if the voice he begins with is his own.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. Find his books at his Amazon.comauthor’s page. Photo by MJV.