Are you trying to be a good writer?

… I mean, are you really… TRYING?…


You know what it’s like when you’ve got an early start the next morning? Say, you’re going on holiday and need to be at the airport before dawn. You don’t want to be late and you need to be wide awake, so what do you do? You go to bed early. You squeeze your eyes tight shut even though it’s still light outside and you try to sleep. But every muscle in your body is rebelling against your attempts to relax. Your taut shoulders ache, your pulse races; you can’t get tomorrow’s to-do list out of your mind; you notice every little ring, ping and ding going on around you, the sounds of other people, engaged and connected – having fun whilst you try to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the worse it gets.

If only you could get out of your own way.

It’s the same when you’re writing, as I learned – the hard way – when I began trying to write fiction. I’ve written business communications for my clients for decades. I know about syntax and language and I have a fair to middling mental thesaurus; so I knew I could throw sentences together. But writing fiction is a world apart from business communications. So I went on a few courses and I read books on how to write. Then I began to try to write fiction.

That’s when I learned that the harder you try, the more dreadful your writing gets.

To write, you need to stop trying and get out of your own way. Writing is communicating – and we’ve all done this since the moment we were born. We’ve learned how to use language to excite, to persuade, to apologise, to love… Stories too are nothing new to us. Stories have been the life-blood of societies and civilizations since time began.

We just need to relax and let them out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for learning the techniques of story-arc, plotting, character development, pace and tension, show-not-tell and so-on. There’s plenty to learn and those who take the time to learn it will find their writing gets more compelling.

What I’m talking about is when you’re trying to put the very best words you can down on the paper; you’re looking up words you don’t know so you can include them; you’re taking a concise moment and working it to the point of exhaustion; you don’t appreciate the simple power of your own ideas, so you overdress them. In your efforts to show what a clever, intelligent writer you are, you embellish your sentences beyond the point of decency. It’s like dressing Amal Clooney using Dame Edna Everage’s wardrobe. Somewhere things have gone horribly wrong.

If you fear your writing may be in Dame Edna territory, here are three stylistic bloopers to look out for. If you spot these in your own writing, it probably means you’re trying too hard. I’m embarrassed to say, these examples are all my own, from early drafts of Singled Out:

Purple prose:

  • …In that moment she reached into his world-weary heart and lit a flame.
  • Her compliance, at once submissive and potent, raised his hopes and heightened his desires.

Ugh… just, ugh.

Overworked reflection:

  • Why had she brought this up? Why could she never resist prodding away at things? … It seemed distinctly possible that something untoward might have happened; but if it had… There was nothing to be gained from letting this idea gain traction; it would only frighten … blah blah…

And this is an edited version of the angsty original. I cringe… I cringe. In most instances, one or two notes of self-reflection are quite sufficient. Then, just get out of the way.

Overblown writing:

  • …She appreciated his overpowering physical form from a womanly perspective.
  • The more she struggled against the quicksand of niggling worries, the further it dragged her down.
  • The sun began its languid descent towards the gently undulating hills…

Classic ‘clever-arse writer’ syndrome. When I rediscovered these clunkers I nearly had to go find a sick-bag. Learn to recognise when you’re puffing up your sentences like this. If they make it into print, you may never forgive yourself.

I was fortunate to be mentored for a few months by the author of several respected novels. She worked over my early draft, ripping into the purple prose, angsty reflection and overblown turns of phrase – amongst many other things. I pared my writing down and down again and I learned to head these pompous clangers off at the pass.

Good writing comes from the heart. You don’t have to try and make it better. Invariably those purple moments detract from the power of your story. They ruffle the reader and interrupt the flow. Except for one or two notably pretentious literary writers, being a novelist isn’t about showing the world how clever you are.

You have to learn to let-go, relax and get out of your own way – and let your story do the hard work.

*** This post first appeared as a guest post on the Blondewritemore blog. ***

32 thoughts on “Are you trying to be a good writer?

  1. Perfect timing for me to read this! I could actually say that about most of your blog posts, too. Amal Clooney and Dame Edna – perfect laugh out loud moment. Thanks for brightening my day and hopefully lighting a fire under my @$$! I’ll let you know if you were successful or not 😄

  2. A good worthy post. I made time to read, and felt I was learning something on the way. Thank you. I have never been a procrastinator, until I began to edit my MS. Fear of making it worse is so huge. 😕

    1. And it’s easily done. There’s a danger that we can take a perfectly solid piece of writing and in fluffing it up, spoil it. That’s why it’s always so helpful to put time and distance into the editing process – to let things settle before revisiting.

      1. The distance between rough first draft, and first edit; should be sized. A no longer than date, needs to be put in place before; procrastination sets in.” How long is that little old piece of string?”

          1. I bow to your experience. The more I read about editing, the more I wonder; what the heck makes me think I am capable. The discipline apears to be one that develops, with both education, and practice. Just because I have the luxury of an active imagination; does it make me qualified to edit? *Properly*

          2. Oh… Welcome to the Writers’ Crisis Club! Your home within this society of paranoia is all part of the ‘joy’ of writing. Love it one day, hate it the next, fear for your sanity, deny your own skills and talents, but keep going! Somehow, the novel gets written, and knocked into some kind of shape, and then sent out into the world… and we’re all still standing!

  3. I’m guilty of some of these at times and I do try to consciously take note when I do my editing but it takes time to kick the habit. What I absolutely abhor is the usage of overly complicated words when simpler ones can be used. It really gives off the sense that the writer is trying too hard to impress and it backfires. Nice summary of common misconceptions by writers 🙂

  4. Yes, yes, yes! I couldn’t agree more, but if highlighted passages in Kindle are anything to go by there are a lot of people who love overly endowed prose. The number of times I’ve read a book only to find the most convoluted way of describing love, or pain, highlighted by twenty people. It drives me up the wall. I like clever wordplay and admire writers who can use language in new and interesting ways, but never at the expense of story or flow.

    1. And that’s a problem. There can sometimes be a fine line between clever wordplay and interesting use of language…. and fifty shades of purple!

  5. Great stuff! It’s all part of the learning process. Now if only I can unshackle the burdens of the dying embers of my heart I can possibly move on towards the sunset… towards a new dawn… a new me unbound by the limits of my birth and awaken to all and every adventure that would bring… or something 😉

  6. Definitely agree. When we try too hard, we end up sounding like Frasier Crane. Or at least I do. And yet, I’m surprised by all the purple prose I find in best-sellers, particularly literary fiction. If the reader is rolling his or her eyes, that’s probably not a good thing. 🙂

  7. I love that you call them purple prose because it doesn’t make it seem “bad” or “wrong,” just off-color. A much better starting point for rewrites than having the feeling like it needs to be ripped to shreds because I thought something was junk!

  8. Wonderful article. I’ve written in all of types, and so they sit hidden in my computer. I do enjoy writing so it’s reads and feels real. I know when I’ve done well. I can feel it.

    1. That’s a good point. I think we develop a feel for when our writing feels ‘right’. But that’s also part of learning what kind of writers we are.

  9. This post rang all kinds of bells in my head, as I am awaiting the result of a beta read on my debut scribblings. Hopefully, it won’t reveal anything too awful. I live in hope!

    1. I hope so too!. But don’t be discouraged if they, or even you, find the odd clunker. Trust me, we get better at spotting them, the more we write!

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