Fine-Tuning Your Writing Style to be Concise and Specific

In our first post exploring this eleventh pillar of novel construction—Writing Style . . . Concise and Specific—we looked briefly at what is involved with having a specific style. What this means, essentially, is being deliberate about our writing style—choosing certain qualities or characteristics that fit the genre we are writing in. Genre influences the way we construct sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It influences our word choices and how we stylize inner and outer dialog, and narrative. And it influences our tone.

More Tips on Being Specific

Part of fine-tuning your writing style to be specific is making sure it carries the proper tone throughout your book. What is tone? This post here gives an in-depth look at tone, and I encourage you to read it. It will help you understand the difference between the overall tone of your book (which relates very strongly, once again, to genre) and the voices of your characters, as well as their moods.

If you are writing a lighthearted comedy, your tone conveyed by your writing style will be much different from what you would use in a horror novel.

Another consideration when being specific in your style is to determine just how much you want your presence as the author to show through. Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) and John Irving (The World According to Garp) are two authors who made a point of “leaking through” their story narrative in a very present (some might say “invasive”) way. That’s their chosen style. I’m a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing (Cat’s Cradle being one of my all-time favorite novels). He had a snarky, wry style that tainted everything that happened in his novels. You get the sense of these authors’ opinions and beliefs, and that’s intentional.

However, writers who let their personal feelings, opinions, and attitudes come through their prose when it’s not appropriate for their genre, premise, or plot are going to run into trouble. Readers will cry “author intrusion!” and that presence thrust into the story will feel invasive and jarring.

So I hope you have a good feel now for what it means to be specific about a writing style.

Concise Writing Is Mostly about Mechanics

To have a strong pillar of novel construction, your writing style needs to be concise. There is so much that can be written on this topic that I am taking the entire 2015 year (yes, I am!) to explore it with the help of four great editors who will tackle “The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing” (the name of the next online course on this blog).

Concise means “brevity of expression or statement; free from all elaboration and superfluous detail” says Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.  Some synonyms are terse, succinct, laconic, summary, pithy, compendious. As I said in the first post on writing style: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.” Choose your words carefully and make them count.

Don’t belabor these details in your first draft; just get the writing on the page. But when you begin fine-tuning during your revisions, take the time to cut down clunky writing, choose stronger nouns and verbs, and eliminate repetition. Unless of course you have a specific and deliberate reason for being exceptionally wordy and convoluted—such as when having a pompous and self-absorbed character talk endlessly in circles about practically nothing.

Track Down Those Weasel Words

Seek and destroy weasel words. Those are words you throw in there without thinking, usually due to the way you were taught to speak, and you probably know which ones you tend to use (often an editor or critique partner will point them out). I have a long list of my weasel words, and I often do a Find and Replace in Word in my current draft to seek and destroy them.

Some of these you might use excessively: just, very, began to, started to, rather, up, down (as in “he stood up and then abruptly sat down,” which can usually be written simply as “He stood and then abruptly sat.”).

You can also find adverbs (Find ly) and passive construction (it was, there were, ing) the same way. Changing “she was listening to him as he was relating his story” to “she listened to him while he related his story” is an example of being concise. Good writers know that adverbs can weaken writing, so a great way to make your writing more concise is to search and find those ly words and come up with a better way to show the emotion or action implied. Change “she said angrily” to “she said, with an angry tinge to her voice.” Or just show through action she’s angry. Don’t tell the reader; show it. That’s being concise.

One last tip about being concise: don’t use what’s called “purple prose.” That means avoid packing your paragraphs with fancy $5 words that no one knows. Do you really think your readers want to stop every minute or so and reach for a dictionary? No, they don’t. Again, you might have a braggadocio character that is keen on tossing about eight-syllable arcane words that haven’t been uttered since the Middle Ages. But that’s different from infusing your writing with such words. As the saying goes: “Don’t use a $5 word when a 5¢ word will do.”

Take the Time to Learn How to Write Well

This may seem unnecessary to say, but, believe me—it needs to be said. I can’t tell you how many novels I edit and critique that show a dearth of basic language composition skills. Many writers can barely construct a complete sentence or a coherent one. Being a great writer requires learning the language you write in. You need to understand basic grammar, punctuation, and word usage. If you misspell a lot of words and put commas in the wrong places and use words incorrectly, your writing will suffer. I wish I didn’t need to say all this, but I do.

Learn your craft and wield language adeptly. If you need to, take classes at a college and buy (and study) some books on grammar. (Try my book Say What? if you really don’t like learning this stuff!) I know, it’s like getting a tooth pulled. But in the long run, you’ll feel much better. Trust me. Writing will come much easier if you learn how to write correctly.

You don’t have to be perfect—that’s why you hire an editor to polish and proofread your manuscript. But the more you can do yourself, the less you will have to rely on an editor to do damage control. And it will cost you less in the long run—in money and time.

So, although I’ve only briefly discussed what concise writing is, I hope you get the gist of it. Have fun developing your unique writing style, tailored to fit your genre, and while you’re at it, take time to improve your grammar, punctuation, and word usage. If you aren’t sure of a word’s meaning, look it up.

That wraps up our look at the eleventh pillar of novel construction, which means you get a new checklist (below)! Only one more pillar to go: Motifs . . . for Cohesion and Depth. We’re almost done with our course for the year, and I hope you’ve been going over the checklists and ensuring the pillars that support your novel are strong!

Any thoughts on how to hone your writing style to be concise and unique? What helps you find your style?

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

Inspection Checklist 8-Tension Ramped to the Max

Inspection Checklist 9-Dialog Compressed and Essential

Inspection Checklist 10-Voice Unique for Each Character

Inspection Checklist 11-Writing Style Concise and Specific

Photo Credit: HaoJan via Compfight cc

One Response to “Fine-Tuning Your Writing Style to be Concise and Specific”

  1. Dennis November 26, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    I think being concise is very important along with proper grammar. I read out loud to see how it sounds. I can catch a lot that way. I can’t believe we are at the last pillar.

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