Friday, July 11, 2014

Overwriting, Purple Prose, Sentence Fragments, and Other Things You May Not Know You're Doing--Until Your Writing Gets Rejected

I've been compiling a list I wish I had years ago, when I started writing books.  These are red flags to editors and publishers--signs of an amateur writer.  We've all been there, or are there now.  We make these kinds of goofs because we don't know any better.  I learned the hard way.  

As an editor, I easily saw these mistakes in other people's writing.  Easy to catch from that distant view:  the writing seemed off, the author intruding or not trusting the story, and closer examination revealed one of these problems. 


It's really tough to see these mistakes in our own work.  But maybe this list will alert you, educate you, and help you avoid those awful rejection letters!


Overwriting--Making Sure the Reader Gets the Point 
Overwriting is so common among writers and we are so blind to our own use of it. When we overwrite, we feel an uncontrollable urge to repeat a point--be it an emotional take-away from a scene or a memory, details of setting, or information.

It happens because we don't trust the reader's smarts.  We're putting up a little signpost:  You get it?  You get my point?  It smacks the reader right out of the dream of our story.  Author intrusion, big time.

How does overwriting appear?  Most often, when the writer both tells and shows the same thing. 

An example:
"Henry slammed his palm on the table and Megan's glass jumped.  He was mad." 

Slamming his palm is shown action.  It communicates anger.  Adding the interpretation (told) "He was mad" dilutes the emotion of the shown action.  It basically says to the reader:  "You're an idiot, I know.  Here's an extra clue."  It also signals that the writer isn't trusting the shown action to deliver the point--that Henry was mad.

Readers are super smart.  They love immersing in the story's dream.  They resent the author's voice whispering from the stage wings:  "You get it?  You sure?"  It's more than irritating.   It'll often cause them to stop reading.  Imagine what repeated overwriting does to your chances of being published. 
To look for overwriting in your own work, search for any place you're trying to make a point, communicate an emotion, deliver information.  Study the passage to and see if you've presented it more than once.  Did you choose to show or tell?  I find feedback essential to pinpoint where I overwrite--even experienced writers are blind to this occasionally.    

Purple Prose--Too in Love with Your Words? 
Sometimes we write something smooth and lovely, a simple sentence, and we feel proud of it.  But then on reread we think:  It's too simple.  It needs more adjectives, more stuff.  So we add on.  The original action gets lost in purple prose.  Ironically, we fall in love with the words more than the meaning
and can't remember what we were trying to say. 

One of my online students passed on this excellent essay on purple prose, which says it all.  Click here to read if you want to check the warning signs that invasive purple prose is creeping into your writing. 

Sentence Fragments--Try to Look Cool but Confuse the Reader?
Sentence fragments are trending--unfortunately.  Somewhere, a writer discovered them in a published book, thought they were a cool idea, decided to try them
too.  Sentence fragments are what's called a device.  They have a certain purpose, structurally, to speed up the writing. 

Like any device, once the reader catches on and sees the author's puppeteer actions, the purpose is lost.  Wizard of Oz stuff--behind the curtain is a tiny man playing with dials.  The dream goes away and the reader, disgusted, goes away too.

Would you recognize a sentence fragment in your own writing?  Here's an example:  "Sighing loudly after fitting the key into the lock."  Or "Before she went into the classroom and caused a scene."  Or "Snuggled up on the couch next to her."  These leave the reader hanging.  Who sighed?  What happened before?  Who snuggled?   

There are lots of kinds  of sentence fragments.  Here's a great article about them if you want to begin to identify these in your own writing and use them more cautiously. 

Using First Names instead of Pronouns--Hi, It's ME! ME! ME!
What's wrong with this writing?  (Not just that it's a rough, rough draft, but what else do you notice?)

Jessie ran up the stairs.  She pushed open the door, wondering what she'd see.  Jessie set her coat and backpack on the floor then crept toward the kitchen.  Nobody was there.  Nobody in the bathroom, or the hall.  She stood in front of the bedroom door.  Did she leave it closed that morning?  Jessie eased it open.

This writer used her character's proper name, Jessie, three times in one paragraph.  She went on to use it fifteen more times on the page.  There's nobody else around--we know it's only Jessie's voice, her viewpoint.  Each time this writer reminded us it was Jessie and no other, readers feel the itch of irritation--do we look stupid?  Of course it's Jessie.  Stop it already with her name!

But many writers, especially new writers, don't know the name-pronoun rule, so here it is:  Unless you're writing a scene where there is confusion potential--more than one person speaking or moving around--keep proper names to a minimum.  Aside from irritating the reader, they also call attention to themselves rather than the action, so they take us out of the dream of the story very sharply.  

That's the fab four.  Watch out for them, learn where you slip into using them, and see what you can correct before your writing leaves your desktop.  As you begin to notice these, avoiding them will become more natural--you'll get fluent fast.   And hopefully publish more too!