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Style

EoL 3: Identifying descriptions you don’t need

It’s time for another crash course in economy of language! This sort of touches on vagueness, which we talked about last time, but I made it a separate post just to break things up a bit. Let’s talk about how you can be more economical with your descriptions.

The problem with puffy descriptions

When a writer crams too much information into a paragraph, it can be hard for readers to figure out which details are important. This makes the paragraph seem vague because there’s no focal point. It also makes your story harder to read because it’s more difficult to keep track of what’s going on.

You might need a critique partner

Sometimes it takes a second pair of eyes to spot unnecessary material in your book, so don’t feel bad if you read over a scene and can’t find anything to cut. It happens to us all.

However, you can learn to analyze your writing, and that might help you eliminate vague or repetitive descriptions. I don’t think I can show you how to do that in a single blog post, but this is one part of the process. It’s another aspect of micro editing, and I hope it helps you learn how to structure your descriptions in a way that adds substance to your story.

Here’s a rough scene:

Victoria was walking to the company store. She needed to buy salt pork, beans, eggs, lard, and flour. She also needed milk for her daughter and some potatoes for dinner. The sky was blue and birds were singing overhead. Cicadas were buzzing in the trees. Horses were clip-clopping down the dusty street. A pair of men stumbled out of the saloon, laughing and leaning on one another as they staggered off into the distance. Victoria sighed in relief when they didn’t seem to notice her at all. She didn’t have time to deal with men.

Victoria noticed that the boarding house was buzzing with people getting ready for shift change. She saw women who were wrangling children and laundry. She also saw men who were walking toward the mines, some tired, some with purpose. No one was waiting at the train station; the next train wasn’t due until morning. When Victoria came around the corner, she saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street.

Word count: 166

This is just a bunch of sentences grouped together. Although the writer is trying to set a scene, there’s no emotional tone, no real direction, and no clear narrative voice. A lot happens in the paragraph, but the writing isn’t economical because it doesn’t go anywhere or give the reader anything to care about. If we want to get really picky, the sentences are choppy and there are too many passive phrases. Let’s concentrate on how to make this little scene more economical first. We can fix the minor details later if there are any left after we revise.

Think about what needs to happen in the scene, and try to keep that goal in mind while you rewrite.

In this case, Victoria does have a purpose: she’s getting groceries. There’s also a hint that someone might be blocking her from getting to the store. I can use that to give this paragraph some direction. I’ll ease off on information we don’t need–like the individual items on Victoria’s shopping list, the weather, and the sounds of nature–so it’s easier for readers to follow the story. Finally, I’ll do what I can to insert a bit of tension to help draw readers deeper into the story.

Example 2:

Victoria’s shoes stirred up puffs of dust on the plank sidewalk as she hurried to the company store, her shopping list clutched in her fist. The saloon doors creaked open into her path and a pair of men stepped out, flushed and laughing, their faces still bright and clear of the black dust that would eventually settle deep into every crease and pore.

Victoria ducked her head, hiding under her bonnet, and prayed neither of them noticed her. She couldn’t afford the time it would take to talk her way out of an awkward situation. Luckily, the men stumbled into the street, heading toward Mrs. Smith’s boarding house. Victoria pressed on. Amelia will be so frightened if I don’t get home before she wakes up from her nap, she thought, rushing around the corner.

Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store. Victoria stopped short in the middle of the sidewalk. Another protest. Her shoulders drooped.

Word Count: 162

Let’s analyze the descriptions in Example 2

This isn’t much shorter than the original example. However, it feels more like a story, doesn’t it? Instead of random descriptions of the weather and the birds and everything Victoria wants from the store, we get something that feels more like a journey.

First off, Victoria has a goal. She wants to finish her shopping quickly and get home to her daughter. I won’t have to do much more to make readers start wanting that for her. I didn’t include many setting details because I’m imagining Victoria is so focused on her goal that she didn’t notice the weather or birds. The details I did use, like the plank sidewalk, will hopefully help readers imagine a 19th century coal town.

Second, we get a little bit of Victoria’s personality. She seems shy, or maybe a little anxious, right? It’s possible she’s had some experiences with drunks coming out of the saloon before and is concerned about what might happen. She’s also worried about her daughter.

Finally, there’s conflict. Victoria’s a woman on a mission and someone–in this case a whole crowd–is in her way. Not only that, but it sounds like these protests are part of an ongoing problem. It’s a personal conflict in this particular scene, but it’s also an indicator of a larger conflict that will draw more characters in before the story reaches its climax. The two men coming out of the tavern are also indicative of a possible problem–they’re newcomers, which you can see because their skin isn’t totally embedded with coal dust, and could be scabs or actors who were brought in to break up a union. (Or possibly minions of some Eldritch terror imprisoned deep within the earth, but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Even though it’s longer, example 2 is more economical because it has more substance.

If I had kept up with the same writing style I used in the first example, how long would it have taken before the story felt like it was moving? How long before we got a good feel for Victoria’s character? Before tension and conflict started to build? Probably a while, right? We did lose a few small details in the second example, but we gained some real substance.

As strange as it might sound, economy of language doesn’t always mean writing shorter. It means getting the most out of every word you use, and avoiding anything that doesn’t contribute to the scene you’re building. In this case, I’m still setting up the story. Introductions and early world building scenes tend to run a little long, but you can ease back on some of those descriptions once you’ve established your setting.

You also have to keep conflict and tension in mind when you write descriptions

It’s hard to create good tension in a story when you’re using vague language and empty descriptions. You’ve got to give your readers expectations. They have to want things to happen, and you have to make it seem like maybe those things won’t happen, in order to have tension in your story. Using specific language and descriptions that make meaningful contributions to your scene will help create those expectations in your readers.

Which example do you prefer?

I’ve said it often enough that I should probably get t-shirts printed: Writing is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Not only that, but some readers just don’t notice subtle details in writing. Even though economy of language is important to me, it doesn’t matter at all to other people out there. So don’t stress too much if you’re having trouble grasping the concept. Do the best you can and write what makes you happy.

If you have any questions about writing descriptions, or anything you’d like to add, feel free to leave a comment below. I do have more economy of language posts planned, as well as a whole host of other things, so please subscribe if you’d like to receive weekly updates when new things get published to the blog.

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Style

Economy of Language 2: Vagueness

I talked about economy of language a few weeks ago and gave you some simple exercises. I went broad last time to help ease you into the subject. Let’s narrow things down a bit today and talk about vagueness.

For me, vagueness is easier to correct during the editing/revision phase. Don’t sweat too much if you’ve noticed any of these problems in your writing and you’re still in an early draft. Remember, macro to micro. Conquer the big, developmental problems first and work your way down to smaller issues like description and word choice. Vagueness is most likely a micro edit.

The material I’m covering today is a little more advanced than normal. Please leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions.

Why is vagueness a concern?

Vagueness hurts your economy of language for two reasons:

  1. You have to spend more time–and use more words–to explain your concept so your reader can understand it.
  2. Vague descriptions might not be necessary at all.

Explaining your concept

Vagueness can come from a few places. Often, the author doesn’t have a clear idea of where their story needs to go, or maybe they do have the concept down in their mind, but they struggle with getting it on the page. Sometimes authors struggle with describing things, especially groups of things, in clear and specific terms. Other times the author is trying to build suspense by hiding details so the reader can’t get a clear picture of what’s going on. I’ll talk about suspense another day, though. For today, I want to focus on using clear and specific language.

Necessary descriptions

There are lots of reasons why an author might have a hard time describing something: they’ve never seen what they’re trying to describe before, they haven’t mastered their character’s narrative voice, they’re not using different angles and senses in their description, or they don’t have a clear idea of their story’s direction. No matter the cause, the outcome tends to be the same–a vague, mushy block of text that doesn’t draw the reader into the scene or tell them anything they need to know.

I may not be able to identify what’s causing vagueness in your writing, but I can show you how to fix it.

Let’s start with a simple sentence: She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This sentence isn’t economical because there’s still a lot to explain. Who is she and who is the crowd? Why is it gathering, and why is this particular location important? What do they look like? Some might argue that the sentence is leading readers to a description of the crowd, but why waste words on that when you could just get to the point?

First, eliminate filters

A crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This goes for both first and limited third person POV. You hardly ever need filter phrases like “I saw, she heard, he felt.” If you’re doing it right, the reader should know it’s something the POV character is seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. without you having to tell them.

Next, give us more about the people.

There are different ways you can do this, so I’m going to give you a few examples. We might end up adding to the word count of the original sentence, or even expanding it into two or three sentences, but it’s still more economical this way if it saves us from needing paragraphs or pages of explanation. It depends on the context of your story. At any rate, try to use the most specific details you can to describe the people.

Okay: Men gathered on one side of the street.

Better: Miners, still in their work clothes with coal dust blackening their faces, gathered on one side of the street.

Best (?): Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats gathered on one side of the street.

“Best” is almost always up to personal taste. I think the nonessential adjective clause (the stuff between the commas) makes the “better” example too wordy, but it’s still stronger than our original sentence.

In any case, when you use more specific language in your book, you start to paint an actual picture for your readers. A crowd of people is pretty amorphous. It’s hard to know what to expect from that, and you want your readers to have expectations. That means they want to keep reading your story, because they want to see their expectations fulfilled or even exceeded. In this example, we started out with a gathering of randos and it meant next to nothing. Now we have a group of miners, getting together straight after work, and readers are probably wondering what’s up.

Finally, let’s look at that location

When you have a gathering crowd, people are most likely meeting in a specific place for a reason. Take advantage of that.

Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

I feel like this is about as much detail as I can cram into this sentence without it becoming too much for the reader. However, it’s more specific than the original, and it leads the reader to what’s coming next.

It makes people ask “why.” If the miners are blocking the store, there’s probably some purpose behind their actions. Next, you need to show the reader how the POV character feels about the situation, and get on to why the miners are doing what they’re doing.

Vagueness hurts your writing because it doesn’t give your readers anything to care about. The updated sentence is longer than the original one, but it’s more economical because it has more substance. I don’t have to spend several more sentences elaborating on who, what, and where.

Which one of these sentences is more likely to lead you into a story?

She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street or Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

There might be a time and a place for the first example, but I believe the second example is more substantial and more interesting.

One last note about descriptions

Don’t be afraid to engage multiple senses or add dialogue into the mix. There are other things I could have done with the miners–like told you how many of them had gathered, or showed them wielding pickaxes and tools in a menacing way, or maybe indicated that they’re getting together to celebrate something.

But wait, there’s more…

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for next week. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information at once, and this feels like a good stopping point.

Try to practice some of these techniques in your writing, and see if these methods help you write more economically. If you have any questions or anything to add, please feel free to leave a comment below. You can use the contact form instead if you’re feeling shy. Finally, sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to be notified when I publish new posts. Thank you!

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Style

Three simple ways to improve your economy of language

Economy of language is something I’ve been wanting to share with you all for a while. I thought it would be better to build up to it, though, because it can be complicated if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the mechanics of writing. I feel like I’ve finally reached a place where I can explain this concept clearly and provide examples or answer questions if anyone needs help.

A little background

I didn’t take creative writing in college. I was broke and desperate to graduate with as little debt as possible, so my elective courses were few and far between. All of the writing courses I took were journalism or whatever core English or literature my major required.

Somebody out there is thinking that’s not very creative or conducive to writing novels, and they’re right–in a sense. However, journalism teaches economy of language, and that’s a feather every writer needs in their cap. As I mentioned back in my post about writing with style, some readers will never notice how economical or how beautiful your writing is. However, I feel like economy of language is still worth learning even if it may not be something you use very often. It teaches you how to make the most of your words, and how to communicate clearly with your audience.

What is economy of language?

In journalism, (at least back when I was in school, I don’t know if it’s changed) each story is allotted so much space–called column inches–in the newspaper. The more important the story, the more inches it’s allowed. Good journalists learn how to budget their words so they can keep a story as short as possible without losing the most important elements.

Economy of language is that skill. It’s how you retain nuance and emotional impact, and lose dead weight. Fewer words sometimes leads to greater clarity. Reducing empty words in a novel might give you enough room to deepen your characterization or expand your story’s conflicts.

Even though indie writers aren’t bound by a traditional publisher’s word count regulations, they still need to write engaging prose. Eliminating filler words and phrases can help readers stay engaged because there’s less material to read through before they get to the good stuff.

I’m sharing a few simple tools today, and I’ll expand on these–with more examples–soon. This process is part of my editing routine, by the way. I’d never finish a story if I tried keeping all of these details in mind as I write. So don’t stress if you’re not ready to tackle everything yet. Give it time and believe in yourself.

These are a few of my favorite tricks

Lean into active voice

I talked about this last week, so I won’t go into too much detail today. Passive voice is a tool and sometimes it’s the best choice for a sentence. However, novice writers tend to overuse this tool. I’ve done critiques for people who had entire pages of nothing but passive voice, it made their stories drag. Passive sentences and expressions can increase your word count without adding significant depth to your writing. Try this exercise and see how much your story might change with a few small tweaks:

  • Pick a short scene in your story and run a word count.
  • Identify your passive sentences. Highlight them so they stand out. If you need help with this, try pasting the scene into an editing app like Hemingway.
  • Rewrite a few passive sentences and make them active. Use your best judgment to decide which sentences to rewrite and which ones to leave.
  • Next, look for passive expressions. Apps usually won’t catch these. Search your scene for words like is, am, are, was, were, or been. If any of them are attached to a verb ending in -ing, you probably have a passive expression on your hands.
  • Replace verbs like “was walking” with “walked.” You don’t have to replace all of your passive expressions (aka past progressives) with active expressions, but try to do a few.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change?

Small changes add up over the course of a novel. Let’s say you eliminated 100 words from your scene with this exercise, and your novel has 70 scenes. If you’re able to do the same thing in every scene, you might cut as many as 7,000 words! What could you do with that much extra room in your story? Create a new subplot, give a secondary character a little boost, add nuance to your descriptions and worldbuilding? You have a lot of options.

In addition to improving your economy of language, active voice tends to sound stronger to your audience. It sometimes removes filters between your reader and your characters, and brings the reader closer to the story.

Replace weak adverbs with stronger words

Adverbs aren’t evil and I’m not saying you should never use them, but overuse of adverbs can hurt your writing.

Many adverbs are neutral descriptors that don’t add to your story’s atmosphere or tone. Every word counts when you’re building an emotional scene. Here’s another simple exercise for you:

Use the same scene as before. You don’t have to change every adverb, but try to reduce your usage by about half.

  • Search for “very.” You can either delete it or replace it with something more appropriate. Instead of “very tired,” your character might be “exhausted” or “drained.” Instead of “very happy,” your character is “elated” or “overjoyed.
  • Do the same thing for “really,” “only,” and “just.”
  • (optional) Look for other adverbs–words that typically end in -ly–and decide whether they serve a meaningful purpose or if they’re taking up space. Delete or replace as needed.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change? Remember, small changes add up over the length of a novel.

Replacing simple adverbs with more complex adjectives or descriptive phrases like similes and metaphors can help inject depth and meaning into your story. I sometimes use the simple forms as placeholders in early drafts, but I tend to replace most of them later.

Dialogue tags

I’ve talked about dialogue tags before, and a lot of that applies today. If you haven’t read that post, please check it out.

I would delete most adverbs attached to a dialogue tag. There’s almost always a stronger word. “He said softly” could be “he murmured” or “he whispered.” Sometimes adverbs in tags are redundant. “She shouted loudly” is a waste–your readers know shouting is loud, so you don’t need to modify it.

If you have a tag alongside an action beat, try dropping the tag. This might improve your story’s pace, too, because it’s one less piece of information your reader has to absorb before they get to what happens next. Here’s an example:

With tag: “Blah blah blah,” John said as he holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”
Without tag: “Blah blah blah.” John holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”

It’s a small change, but it makes a difference, doesn’t it? Here’s your exercise.

Go through your dialogue tags in the same scene you’ve been working on. Using your best judgment, replace some dialogue tags with action beats and consider replacing adverbs if you have any in your tags. Check your word count again.

How many words did you cut?

There is a time and place for almost everything. Passive voice is a necessary part of the English language. Sometimes adverbs are the perfect words. Dialogue tags help your reader keep up with your characters. Practicing economic writing will help make your writing stronger, but it’s okay to be wordy when the situation calls for it. You’ll figure out what’s best for your story as you go.

I gave you simple examples today, just to help you get a feel for economy of language. There are more advanced techniques, which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts, but I think it’s best to start with an easy introduction and build up to the harder material. Feel free to subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like to know when new posts go live.

Do you keep economy of language in mind as you’re writing or editing? You’re welcome to leave a comment with your thoughts. If you liked this post, please use those social media buttons to share it with your friends. Thanks!

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Style

Active vs Passive Voice

I’m back with another old school writing rule–active voice vs passive voice. Most of the time, when someone is talking about your “voice” in writing, they mean your narrative voice. Every once in a while, they’re referring to the way the subject, object, and verbs in your sentences interact with one another, and that’s what I want to discuss today.

Active vs passive verb usage is something I had a hard time learning. English teachers really seemed to prefer passive. Journalism teachers, on the other hand, hate it to almost a bad writing rules degree. Over the course of your writing career, someone somewhere will probably tell you to never write in passive voice.

That person is wrong. Active and passive voice are both necessary parts of English. Also, once you understand them, you can utilize them to their fullest and it will make a difference in your writing. Let’s get to work!

First, what’s the difference between active voice and passive?

Both active and passive voice involve the action happening in a sentence. Active sentences emphasize the person who performs an action. Passive sentences emphasize either the action itself, or the object that is being acted upon.

How about an example?

Active: James threw the ball.
Passive: The ball was thrown by James.

You almost always want to go active in simple sentences like this. The passive version is awkward, and overusing this kind of phrasing puts readers off. It also puffs up your word count without adding anything substantial to your story.

One last note: A lot of the free passive sentence checkers online are not accurate. I tested my example sentences on a few of them, and they tend to mark a sentence as active unless it contains “by” or “to be.” However, there are cases when a sentence’s voice is a little ambiguous, and I’ll talk about that in just a bit.

Next, let’s look at examples when active voice is better.

You can use active voice to cut down on infinitives and verbs like “was” and “were,” which will reduce your word count more than you’d think.

Sometimes passive sentences are just awkward.

Active: I ate the pie.
Passive: The pie was eaten by me.

That one is obvious, right?

Active: Email me if you have any questions.
Passive: If there are questions, I can be reached by email.

This isn’t as bad as the first example, but I feel like the active version is more direct.

Watch out for infinitive phrases.

Infinitives involve “to be + a past participle verb,” as you’ll see in the next example. Sometimes you need them. Sometimes they’re clunky and you can get rid of them.

Passive with infinitive: Dinner is ready to be eaten.
Active: Dinner is ready.

I’d avoid the infinitive in most circumstances because I don’t feel like it carries any special significance. It might work if you’re trying to show a character’s particular accent or something along those lines, though.

Okay, now let’s see some examples of when to use passive voice

When you want to emphasize the object in the sentence.

Passive: The defendant was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
Active: The judge sentenced the defendant to two years in the state penitentiary.

I could go either way on this example. It really depends on which version goes best with the rest of the paragraph, and whether you want to put the emphasis on the defendant or the judge.

When the subject is unknown or irrelevant.

Passive: My bicycle was stolen.
Active: Thieves stole my bicycle.

I think you’d want to put the emphasis on the bicycle rather than the unknown thieves, so passive voice works better. It’s also a little redundant to say “thieves stole” anything because who else would it be? The act of stealing automatically makes someone a thief, so you usually don’t need to point that out.

When you want to be vague.

Passive: Tests were failed.
Active: Half of the class failed their tests.

I’m not a fan of vagueness as a general rule. A lot of writers rely on vagueness to create tension or suspense, but there are more effective ways to do that. In any case, passive voice works well when you’re trying to be vague.

If you’re writing a formal paper.

That’s more than I want to get into today, since this blog is geared more toward writing fiction, but I thought I’d throw it up here as an FYI. You might need to utilize passive voice in your stories if your characters are students, scientists, or if they work in a profession where formal writing is preferred. Check the Purdue OWL if you need detailed information about writing (or imitating) formal papers.

Here’s a weird either/or situation

Sometimes you need to look at the context of a sentence before you make a final judgment call. If it’s something short and simple, active is usually better. But there might be a time when you need to rely on the passive voice for the rest of the paragraph to flow like it should.

Passive: The rabbit was chased by the dog.
Active 1: The dog chased the rabbit.
Active 2: The rabbit ran from the dog.

In the first two sentences, the dog is the subject–it’s performing the action, chasing. If you want emphasis on the dog, you should probably just go with the Active 1 example. However, if you want emphasis to be on the rabbit, you have a couple of options. You can go with the passive voice. Or you can rewrite the sentence so the rabbit is the subject, like I did for Active 2.

It’s hard to say which is better in this case. It depends on what else is happening in your story. I prefer the active voice, but you might decide that doesn’t work for you and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Finally, here is something I need to research a little more

Remember when I said my journalism teachers hated passive voice? Well, I haven’t been able to confirm whether an editor at a publishing company would react the same way. At any rate, here’s a little something my old profs couldn’t stand–passive expressions (these are also known as past progressives, by the way).

You can have a passive expression in a sentence without the entire sentence being passive.

Passive expression: I was walking to the store.
Active expression: I walked to the store.

A passive expression occurs when you pair a verb with a form of “be” (am, is, was, were, are, or been).

I checked the passive expression sentence in Grammarly and Hemingway, and neither of them flagged it as passive. Any of my journalism teachers would have marked it, though. I don’t know how an editor at a publishing company would react to a passive expression, so I can’t tell you whether it’s something you should worry about.

I’ll eventually remove or rewrite most of the passive expressions in my story. There’s a time and a place for them, but I usually write with a word count goal in mind. Adding those extra “be” forms to my verbs isn’t always economical. Word count may not be a concern if you’re self-publishing, but it’s something you should keep in mind if you want to go the traditional route because publishers have word count limits that vary from one genre to another.

English is weird. Do what works for you.

In my experience, active voice is better most of the time, but you can’t–and shouldn’t–avoid passive voice. It’s a tool, and you can learn how to use it to your advantage. I tried to keep things as simple as I could today, but I know grammar lessons don’t come naturally to some people. However, some of these basic rules can have a big impact on your writing.

If you just can’t get active vs passive down, try not to sweat it too much. You can ask a critique partner or editor to help you identify sentences that sound awkward. Some people find reading out loud helps them find errors on their own.

I have some upcoming posts that expand upon more of the finer points of writing style, so please subscribe (on the right for desktop, at the bottom for mobile) if you’re interested in receiving updates. Feel free to leave a comment down below if you have any questions or concerns. And, as always, use those social media buttons to share this with your writer friends! Thanks a bunch! I’ll see you next week.

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Style

Writing With Style

Today I want to talk about style. Not pantser vs plotter style, but something closer to (and maybe expanding upon) Elements of Style style. Isn’t English fun? Let’s talk about this kind of style and why it may or may not matter to you.

Let’s see if I can make this clearer than mud

Your story’s style basically boils down to the last layer of polish you put on your drafts before you’re ready to call them finished. It’s things like sentence structure, word choice, the amount of detail you put into your description, and a whole lot of other little things.

I’m working on posts to explain how to tackle different angles of your style, but for now it might be easiest to think of it from a painter’s point of view.

Some writers are like Picasso. Their work gives us a complete picture, but it’s a little blocky. Maybe the pieces aren’t quite where some of us would put them, but that doesn’t mean those authors are not telling beautiful stories.

Other writers are more like Michelangelo. Their work is detailed and lush. The words flow and feel lifelike. Every piece falls exactly into place. It’s rich and enchanting, but sometimes it’s just too much. It can be too wordy. Purple prose might be a problem. Or they might get so caught up in the details that they lose track of the story.

What’s your style?

I think it’s best to find a middle ground. Use simple language for the most part, but be prepared to pull out all the stops when you get to important or emotional scenes.

Finding that middle ground might mean different things for different authors. For me it means putting more visual details into my stories to elevate my readers’ experience. Other writers might need to work on issues like economy of language, grammar issues, vagueness, word choice, atmosphere, sensory description, narration, and a number of other things. I’ll get more specific about these topics in other posts, so please subscribe if you want updates, or check back from time to time.

Does it matter?

Style is one of those picky things. It’s so subtle that some people don’t notice it at all. With some readers, it’s going to go right over their heads. They’re focused on what happens in the story, and they don’t care how beautiful the author’s words are. Other readers will struggle to stay interested in a book that isn’t highly polished.

I’m in the second group, if you were wondering. I can get so sucked into somebody’s elegant turn of phrase that I may not notice plot holes or inconsistencies the first time I read something.

Whether it matters probably comes down to how you want to publish.

Let’s go back to our Picasso and Michelangelo metaphor.

In the (roughly) six months since I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, the majority of indie books I’ve seen are Picassos. Whereas the books I’ve read from traditional publishers tend to be Michelangelos. It’s not 100 percent on either side–there are Michelangelo indie books as well as traditional Picassos, and plenty of books published either way fall somewhere in the middle–but this seems to be the case most of the time.

A book with less flashy style is not necessarily bad.

Picasso’s art is amazing; he helped launch an entire movement in the art world, remember? As long as the author has found their audience, and the book resonates with that audience, that’s really all that matters. Market accordingly and you should be fine.

However, I suspect Picasso-esque books are less likely to find a niche in the traditional world because agents and editors are taught to look for Michelangelo stories. If they do accept a Picasso, they’re probably going to want the author to make some pretty heavy revisions. Making those revisions will be up to the author, of course, but they might lose their contract if they refuse. Traditional publishing is a tough gig. Unfairly so at times.

I’ll revisit style soon, so please check back

I hope today’s post made sense. This is an introduction to a series of posts about different pieces of the big style picture, so it’s possible things will fall into place in a few weeks if I wasn’t quite clear enough today. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have questions, though. As always, you can use those social media buttons down below to share this with your writer friends. Thanks!

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Image Credit: Annie Spratt