It Doesn’t Have to be Beautiful, It Just Has to be Clear — A Guest Post by Author Rachel Toor
Because I teach creative writing to undergrads and graduate students, I get to see a lot of great ideas and lively stories that are marred by—how do I say this nicely?—bad prose. Tons of crappy lines riddled with mechanical errors. I recently heard a YA author say that he wrote in the first person because he wasn’t good at sentences. In the first person, he said, mistakes made and liberties taken with the English language belonged to his character and that got rid of the problem.
Not really, I thought. If you want to write, you have to know how to write well. Then you craft the language so that it reflects how people actually think and speak. In what universe, I wondered, is it okay for a writer to say he’s not good at sentences? Especially as if it’s an immutable fact—like saying you’re short or hate avocado. If you want people to read what you write, you have to care about your sentences.
We all need editors to point out our bad habits and tics and to catch our mistakes. We all make mistakes, pretty much all the time. I love nothing more than being edited. I cringe when someone points out a crime against language I knew I was committing but somehow went ahead and perpetrated anyway. I am grateful to be reminded of rules that I may have forgotten, or be taught things I never really understood.
One of my favorite books is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I try to re-read it at least once a year. If you don’t have this little book, get it now. You can probably find it on Amazon for 47 cents. Remember that E. B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and believe me when I tell you that he can make learning grammar fun. Each time I re-read it I am reminded of all the ways that my own prose can go wrong.
For example, the authors tell us to “omit needless words.” I have learned to love cutting my own work. I hate flabby writing and try to make sure mine is as lean as possible.
In order to do this I’ve collected a little bag of writing tricks, things I pull out to double-check that I’m not getting lazy and that I’m making deliberate choices. I’ll share a few of them here.
Most of us learned at some point that the passive voice is not our friend. Especially in fiction, language should be immediate and forceful; using forms of that static verb, to be, often bogs down prose. So I search my manuscript for is, am, are, was, were, etc. and ask myself if I want to use a more vivid verb. (Sometimes I don’t.)
I’m also on the alert for nominalizations, a nasty thing that happens when verbs get turned into nouns. Notice how “The police conducted an investigation” is less energetic than “The police investigated.” (Nominalizations often end in tion, -ism, -ty, -ment, -ness, -ance, -ence and can usually be replaced.)
Another trick to enliven prose is to scout for “this,” “that,” and “there,” which often turn out to be unnecessary. Getting rid of them can force you into zippier and more concise rewrites.
How many redundant words and phrases can I jettison? Does someone need to completely finish something? Or can she just finish it, or complete it? Do I need to sit down, or just sit? Isn’t a gift always free? I try to make sure each sentence, each word, earns its keep.
After I’ve got a draft, I read to find things I might be overusing. I hit control F and am sometimes horrified by the results. In a late draft of my novel I used the word “little” 151 times in 300 pages. Good grief! Even given that one of my characters is the size of a hot dog roll, that’s too many littles.
Often when you re-read your work many times in revision you end up memorizing it. Each sentence starts to acquire the ring of inevitability. I’ve learned to change the whole thing into a different typeface, something ugly and san serif (nothing looks literary in Arial) or ridiculous (Comic Sans) and see how it reads. Or I’ll load the manuscript onto my Kindle where it feels like a published book—and then I’ll blush to see the clunky sentences and missing transitions.
I’ll make the type size really big and look at every sentence to find missing words or awkward phrases, and then I’ll shrink the whole thing down to 25% and see what the shape is. Are there gigantic and intimidating blocks of prose, or is there so much dialogue it looks like a 300 page children’s poem?
I read all my drafts out loud, loud enough that my dog, Helen, can hear them. Things that seemed fine in my head often end up sounding clunky. If I stumble over the language, I know I’ll have to fix it. (Sometimes I have to add “run” or “treat” into the reading to keep Helen from falling asleep.)
After I go through my repertoire of tools and tricks, after I’ve rewritten the same sentences eight thousand times, I know that someone else is going to find things I’ve missed or gotten wrong. I know that it’s not my job to be perfect, but I also know that if I don’t work hard to make the sentences as good as I can, the reader is going to have to struggle to make sense of the story. I tell myself that it doesn’t have to be beautiful (though I would like it to be), it just has to be clear. George Orwell said, good prose is like a windowpane.
Whatever drives us to write, we should strive to be understood. Impeccable sentences are an essential ingredient.
Rachel Toor is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University and the author of three nonfiction books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish her first Young Adult novel, On the Road to Find Out, in June 2014. Rachel lives with her dog, Helen, who raced in her first half marathon this February. She was 4th dog (out of 42)..