Why Writerly Words Are Not Your Friend

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly

by Shannon Donnelly

“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” – Stephen King, On Writing

There are three huge flashing signs that are the marks of an inexperienced writer. Inconsistent and overuse of punctuation is one of them, overuse of adverbs is another, but the one that really makes a novice stand out as still learning the craft are the “writerly words.”

These are the words thrown in to show off—to make the reader pause and stop and marvel at the writer’s clever turn of phrase. These are words put on the page without thought as to if you’re breaking viewpoint to put that word into that sentence. And, guess what, that stop means the reader’s been thrown out of the story—the writer’s sacrificed story and character for a word or a phrase. For being clever. How do you know if you’re doing this?  And, more importantly, how do you get out of this habit?

1-Read your work aloud. If you’re embarrassed, send the family off to the movies, lock the bedroom door and sit with a glass of water and a print out and read. Mark the sentences you need to fix—don’t fix them now, just read. Aloud. To yourself. If you stumble over a word or a phrase, mark it. If you stumble over how to pronounce something, mark it. If you run out of breath due to a rambling sentence, mark it to be fixed. You’ll be amazed how much you catch with one reading.

2-Look at every word and ask: “Would this character know this word, and would he or she say or think this?” When you put a word into a character’s mouth or thoughts and that word doesn’t fit, you’ve just broken viewpoint. Another writer will know this—a reader will just feel the story or character is “off.” Now an artist might think a sky is “azure” but would a truck driver think that? Probably not. A woman might know another woman is wearing a designer dress, and might even know the designer if she’s also fashion conscious, but a rancher who lives in the middle of nowhere probably wouldn’t know one suit from another. It’s all about getting those pesky details right.

3-Get yourself a couple of trusted readers. I recommend having a couple of readers who are writers, and a couple who are just readers (writers read differently than readers, and you want input from each). Have them simply mark or tag anything that gives them trouble—again, you don’t need fixes, you just need them to mark places where they’ve been thrown out of the story (where they’ve become aware that they are reading, and not experiencing a story). Really, really look at every place any reader marks—and if you get two people marking the same spot, you’ve got fixes to make.

4-Read a lot of great writers. You will absorb style. You want to read the best stuff, because you want to write that, too. Take apart great writing—look at the punctuation, look at word choice, look at the balance. Look at the voice used. Don’t just read for pleasure, read to learn from the best. And I urge every writer to read widely—don’t settle for just one genre or one author.

5-Take out every clever phrase that just makes you want to preen with pride. This is otherwise known as “kill your darlings” because that’s how hard this advice is to follow. You will rebel at this advice—you will think, “But that is my voice and my style.” Trust me on this—you want your story and characters to be the stars. You want readers to fall in love with them—and look for you as an author because your stories and characters are so great. I’ve been here, too. I fall in love with something and I do not want to take it out, but every time I do, I end up with a stronger story. And better characters.

6-Copy the greats. Very important—this copying is to learn, and doesn’t mean you can steal someone else’s words. Do not put anyone else’s words into your fiction—that is plagiarism. But, to learn, go ahead and take a page or two from a favorite book, and take the writing apart by retyping it. This helps you take the writing apart—you start to see how things are constructed. Then delete or trash those words and that file—they aren’t yours, so don’t steal them. You are using them to learn your craft. Look at how the narrative and dialogue are put together, but then let your mind absorb it and turn it into your own style.

7-Listen to King’s advice—make it your priority to keep the ball rolling. Readers want great stories—which is why someone who isn’t a great writer can hit the best seller list. It’s about the story; it’s about the characters. Don’t make your focus the great description, or the clever phrase, or the cute word that seems so different it startles the reader. Keep the ball rolling—keep the story going.

Shannon Donnelly Bio

Edge Walkers_200x300Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, RWA’s Golden Heart, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

She is the author of the Urban Fantasy “Demons & Warder” series, featuring Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, as well as her Regency Historical romances, which have been in the stop selling Historical romances on Amazon.com. Her SF/Romance, Edge Walkers, is currently on sale for .99 at Amazon.com for the month of November.

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39 Responses to Why Writerly Words Are Not Your Friend

  1. I love to play with my words. In real life.

    In real life, I’m the POV when I open my mouth. So, it always works. It’s not always good or wise or even sane, but the dialog works for my POV.

    When I’m writing, the challenge is to balance when wordplay (a cliché twist, for example) works for that POV in that situation.

    Reading aloud is a stellar way to spot the speed-bumps. Having someone else read aloud to me yields even better results (IMHO). My trusted writing buddy, Sherry Isaac, read my WIP aloud to me while we traveled from So. Carolina to Atlanta. She didn’t have my preconceived notions for how dialog would be said. It helped me spot when I needed to reword or pause for a dialog cue.

    NOTE: Confined in a car while listening to someone else read your work is not for the faint-of-pen. It can be brutal.

    Great post! Thanks.

  2. lorispielman says:

    Thanks for the excellent advice, Shannon.

  3. Laura Drake says:

    This is a great blog, Shannon. I first became aware of ‘writerly words’ from Margie Lawson.
    I love them. And I have to weed them out, every time. Either due to a critter’s eye roll, or my editor’s questions (now those are embarrassing.)

    Much as I love to write them, I do understand the need to kill them.
    Sniff.

  4. Ah yes, Shannon … we must kill our little darlings. When I first became aware of this I was still in denial … but Oh … that’s such a great line, word, paragraph. Then I got real and started learning how to ferret them out. They still sneak in, but at least I look for them when I’m reading.

    As always, a great post🙂

  5. bonniegill says:

    I always read my pages to my dogs. They are quiet and don’t laugh at me if I stumble.

  6. This is great advice, Shannon. Trying to sound “literary” is such a common mistake newer writers make (I know I did!), especially when those well-turned phrases slow the action. Yet, it is so difficult to kill off those little darlings, so don’t be afraid to ask your beta readers or your editor for feedback about specific passages if you suspect they might be culprits.

  7. jamiebeck says:

    I’m guilty of this! When I first began writing fiction, I had a very formal style (probably due to ten years of legal writing). It took time for me to learn to relax and let the characters do the talking (so to speak). I’m getting better, but it is easy for me to lapse into “fancy” writing, especially when a character is engrossed in a particularly serious thought.

    I’ve heard about software that can read your documents aloud. Has anyone tried it? I’ve never been a fan of reading out loud (my mouth gets very dry), but I know it is good advice.

    Thanks for the helpful post. So many things to improve…sometimes it can be overwhelming!

  8. Jenny Hansen says:

    Fantastic post, Shannon! Thanks.🙂

  9. Great post, Shannon – as always!🙂

  10. I was amazed when I printed my chapter and read it how different it sounded / felt. When I read it on the computer’s monitor it seemed good. However, when printed and read out loud, the errors were obvious. Thanks for the confirmation.

  11. carolynrae1 says:

    I always stop and think if the character I’m writing about would know or use the word I have in mind. Even if the character would know the word, he or she might not use it in dialogue. Carolyn Rae Author – facebook.

  12. Reblogged this on Eileen Dandashi ~ Writer & Book Reviewer and commented:
    This blog’s tips are worthy to apply to any writer’s words.

  13. elfahearn says:

    Ugh, I need to “kill my darlings” in a big way. I can feel the blood leaking from my heart as I contemplate it, but you’re right, Shannon, it’s euthanasia, it’s mercy for the reader.

    • SD Writer says:

      A good tip is to leave them in first draft, and second, and third — by the time you’re done with copy edits, it’s usually a relief to cut them.

      Shannon

  14. writersideup says:

    It’s amazing how easily a reader can be jarred from being lost in the story, and it’s not just from the “darlings.” It can be any inconsistency, whether in voice, a typo, a repeated word/phrase, especially when in close proximity to be fresh in mind…so many things.

    I do agree it’s critical to have writer and non-writer readers to help notice the things we can’t as the one doing the writing. We are too familiar with our own words, while they have fresh—and different, even from each other’s—eyes.

    I don’t remember hearing of the “different font” tip, but it sounds useful! And, Orly, you really made me laugh, btw🙂

    And, for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I too LOVE Stephen King: ON WRITING. There was little I disagreed with and lots I learned, along with the actual pleasure itself, of reading the book. It was written so beautifully, and there was so much about himself that was either interesting or endearing, I found myself sincerely liking the man🙂

    Great post, Shannon! Thanks🙂

    • SD Writer says:

      Thank you–and for proofing, you need anything that will reset the brain and make it see what’s really on the page (and not what it thinks is on the page).

      I’ve missed entire bits of dialogue that “I thought” I’d put in.

      Shannon

    • Orly Konig Lopez says:

      I’m convinced the girls keep me around for comic relief.😉

  15. ecreith says:

    Right on, Shannon! I’m the writer with the bionic vocabulary, which allows me to choose the *right* words for my characters and my story. It’s amazing how often those words are the plain and simple ones that keep the story moving.
    I’m not a Stephen King fan, but “On Writing” is one of the best books I’ve read on the craft.

  16. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    I never thought of this before, but it’s a good point. Damn those writerly words! Why are they so tasty?

    • SD Writer says:

      Thanks, Heather, for the reblog.

      And I think we love those words because we are writers–we get drunk on words. Trouble is we have to make sure they serve the story and charaters first.

      Shannon

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