The Truth about Writing Mechanics

Today wraps up our year-long exploration of the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. We hope you’ve learned a lot of useful things to seek out and destroy these flaws. Be sure to get the most benefit from this course by purchasing the book! With dozens more Before and After passages and expanded content, this #1 best-selling must-have resource should have a prominent place on your shelf. Be sure to pull it out, though, and refer to it as you work on every scene of every novel. Buy it in print or as an ebook (available in all formats via numerous online bookstores).

Let’s talk about writing mechanics. I suppose it’s only to be expected that in a book written by editors there would be some admonition to write correctly. Meaning, someone has to mention the obvious: that to present flawless writing, a writer needs to learn how to write grammatically correct sentences.

Don’t panic—this isn’t going to be a grammar lesson. If you want to take the time to learn about grammar, there are plenty of books and blogs that can help (especially Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage, another book in The Writer’s Toolbox Series).

But really, every writer should spend time learning the tools of his trade. We use words, and in abundance. We writers should wield them both creatively and correctly.

We’ve all heard it said that before you can (or should dare to) break the rules, you need to master them. I agree, for the most part. Some writers have a wonderful style that doesn’t adhere to a whole lot of grammar rules. Some of those writers bring the flavor of ethnicity to their prose, or, in POV, the first-person narrator lacks a proper education (consider Mark Twain’s characters, for example). There are times when deliberately breaking those rules works.

But a whole novel with fractured or chaotic sentence structure is going to give most readers a headache.

The sentence, to me, is the foundation of all prose. I love a beautifully crafted sentence. I love to be surprised by an unusual, unexpected word. The placement of each word in a sentence can be carefully decided for a specific impression or impact. Moving one word to the beginning or end can change the feel or sentence meaning, even if subtly.

Making Every Word Count

The one-eyed witch in my novel The Unraveling of Wentwater warned, “Take care with your words. They have consequences.” My heroine has to stitch every word back into existence after a spell goes awry and causes the world to vanish. And every time the witch receives a word in payment for a spell she casts, she puts it in a jar and sets it on her shelf. From then on that word no longer exists. The story is all about how important each individual word is.

Words have the power to heal and to hurt. I wonder how many wars have been started, marriages ruined, and murders committed all from the utterance of a single word. As wordsmiths, writers have a serious charge. Maybe you don’t see yourself in such a capacity, but what if you did? What if you made every word count? Instead of counting words?

Writers these days seem to be all about counting words. About quantity over quality. About pounding out a minimum word count each day instead of searching for the perfect word or working on crafting the perfect sentence.

Maybe this feels off topic as we wrap up our last fatal flaw of fiction writing, but something feels flawed to me when a writer pushes to get five thousand words down on paper or the computer screen in record time—all so she can feel a sense of satisfaction (or post her great accomplishment on Facebook).

Slow Down and Smell the Words 

I’d like to encourage writers to slow down. As we barrel along at breakneck speed in our daily routine, it takes (sometimes gargantuan) effort to slow our brains to a crawl. We need to crawl if we are going to notice our world. Maybe even come to a complete stop, to a place of utter stillness, to really notice. How can we write about anything if we don’t take the time to experience life through our senses? That sensory detail—the things we observe, smell, taste, touch—gets processed, chewed up, and digested as fodder for creativity.

I remember hearing lines like “You’re too young to write a novel. You haven’t lived long enough or experienced enough life to have anything significant to say.” Now that I’m well past the midpoint of my life, I get that. But just because we may be old, it doesn’t mean we’ve been paying attention.

Writing can be a lot like life. We get used to certain things, we fall into routine, we like comfort and don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t want to take risks or stretch ourselves too much as we age. We like that ratty old chair. We vacation in the same place every year. Familiarity is comforting.

But this can filter into our writing and affect our creativity. With an attitude of “I have to hurry and write a lot of words” because our writing time is limited or our lifespan feels too short and “I’m too comfortable and settled in my style and don’t want to push myself,” our writing can start to fossilize.

Attitude and Writing Mechanics

So, really, my focus in this last post on writing mechanics has to do with our attitude. Are you always in search of the perfect word? The perfect sentence? Is your goal centered on making sure you meet a target word count or on writing the best story you can?

Attitude greatly affects writing mechanics. If we approach our writing time with a sense of impatience and word-count expectations, how likely is it we’ll write well? Not.

Some people, like me, work best under deadline. I self-impose ridiculous deadlines for my projects. I won’t get my books written and published if I don’t. I think that’s a carryover from all the newspapers I worked on. Many nights I had editors breathing down my neck—literally—as I stood rolling the waxed pieces of paper onto the board as the clock ticked down till press time (I worked in composing, which was the department that “composed” the newspaper, back in the day before computers). But even though I put that kind of deadline pressure on myself, I never rush the writing.

Rushing and Gushing

It’s attitude. Nothing wrong with gushing out a scene, getting it all down before the ideas slip out your ears. Sometimes that feels like rushing instead of gushing.

But there’s a difference.

Writers rush to finish a draft, rush to publish before taking time to carefully go over every sentence and question every word. In their rush they don’t bother to edit, don’t bother to look up the correct use of a word, don’t bother to have readers give constructive feedback. Sure, go ahead and gush, but then go back, slow down, and start sifting through your words.

I see this a lot with my editing clients. Some want to get on the publishing bandwagon yesterday. They’ll inform me their book is now up for sale on Amazon, but they didn’t have the time or money to edit it. Other clients come to me with a proverbial tail between their legs, admitting they did the aforementioned action and after few sales and negative reviews (mostly about how sloppy the writing was), they now want to slow down, get help, learn how to write the perfect sentence and the perfect book (in a manner of speaking).

How much better it would have been if they had ignored word count and focused on words. Ignored the whistling wind urging them to hurry and just plopped down on the ground and closed their eyes and listened to the timbre of the wind. Then they would be in a much better place to be able to describe the wind—and everything else.

I don’t have any Before or After passages in my section of this fatal flaw. Instead, I’d like to have you think about your own Before and After—when you sit down to write during that block of time you’ve set aside and when your time is up and you’re finished for the day.

Don’t look at the clock. Don’t count words. Make your words count. That is the heart of writing mechanics.

In Conclusion . . . 

Words, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. Those are the components of story. As with any profession, it behooves writers to learn to wield and master the use of the tools of their trade. Work on becoming a proficient wordsmith. Language is our realm, and words are the building blocks of every tree, flower, and character.

Spend time reading beautifully written novels, poems, and short stories. Slow down and taste words; roll them around in your mouth. Show words the honor they deserve and work with them respectfully.

Take time, too, to learn the mechanics of writing so you say what you mean and don’t say what you don’t mean. Aim for excellence, precision, creativity. Don’t settle on the first things that gush onto the page. Go back and make them better. Perfect, if possible.

Often the difference between a good writer and a great one is in the writing mechanics. Don’t let laziness or a lack of interest in grammar and word usage cause you to succumb to this fatal flaw of fiction writing. You owe it to yourself and your readers to master this one.

Share in the comments your thoughts about rushing and gushing. Has this year’s course helped you become a better writer? We hope so! We’d love to hear which flaw has been your greatest challenge and what advice we’ve given in this blog’s section that has helped you conquer it!

Ready for a new year of writing? Resolved to become the best writer you can be? Stay tuned for some great posts and instruction in 2016! Be sure to subscribe to Live Write Thrive so you won’t miss anything.


Are you ready for the new year? Ready to get serious about your writing and crafting terrific books?

Don’t waste time floundering around in confusion. Getting professional help is the ticket. I spent decades writing novels and failing to sell them, without understanding what I was doing wrong. I wish I’d had someone like me to point out what my weaknesses were in my plots and structure so that I could have remedied them.

Studying writing craft books like 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing is a smart way to improve. But getting personal help is even better.

Make it your resolution for this new year to get exactly the help you need so you can be the best writer possible!

My recommendation? Get either a ten-page or fifty-page critique. Right away you’ll see what you need to work on. Get feedback on those opening scenes and see how well you’ve set up your premise, plot, and characters. I make it easy for you.

Just click and submit:

10-page critique: $55

50-page critique: $260

If you’ve had professional help with your manuscript, you might want to submit the full manuscript to me. Get on my calendar so you’ll be all set. But if this is your first novel or you haven’t had any critique partners or an editor work with you on it, start with a shorter critique first.

Need editing? If your novel has been critiqued and you feel it’s ready for the next step, hire me and my team of editors to help you! I provide a unique editing service that’s twofold: content edit and proofreading, and I team up with one other editor (a published author as well), so you get two sets of professional eyes on your project! Editing doesn’t get more thorough than this.

Want more info? Tell me about your project, how far along you are, and what your editing needs are. Let’s get started and get your book in tip-top shape! Contact me here.

 

9 Responses to “The Truth about Writing Mechanics”

  1. Aura Eadon December 30, 2015 at 9:40 am #

    I think I understand where you are coming from when you say to slow down and pay attention to words. So here I am, an unpublished writer, feeling that the approach you took on this post tries forcefully to push every writer in the same square mold.

    First, I believe that every writer is different. Some writers share common traits with other writers, and some writers benefit from certain methods and mechanics, but everyone is different to a point that I believe figuring out what works for each writer is the best thing anyone can do. It has been for me, and I also try to keep myself flexible and easy on changes because the more I write, the more I change as a writer.

    Secondly, the affirmation that writing is about words that count but not word counts, as lovely as it sounds, I believe it’s flawed. We are storytellers. The ultimate product of our work is a story told using the medium of words. Words matter and count, as do word counts. Equally. A literary creation of perfect sentence after perfect sentence that contains no story and paper-thin characters is useless, no matter how much people want to celebrate it as amazing art. I don’t write for the sake of writing. I write to tell stories.

    Regarding word counts, a story of a thousand pages full of perfect sentences (even if it’s a brilliant story with brilliant characters) will not attract the attention of publishers unless I am a recognized name. In that respect, paying attention to the word count will get me further than spending ten years crafting a monumental piece of writing that remains unpublished.

    Additionally, if I ever want to remove myself from the day job and be a full-time writer (and please save me the speech about how difficult it is), then I have to learn how to be prolific. Creating one book every ten years, will not get me out of the day job. Or let me reach that which I want to reach. Writing one, or two, or even four books a year and maintaining that production chain will get me further. And just to be clear writing four books a year doesn’t mean publishing those books in one year. It means you spread the production over the twelve months and the years ahead. With a publisher, sales, and continuing this way, it means I have a steady income based on writing books.

    On top of that, I want to drag your attention to the fact that producing a book is not just crafting fancy sentences. For example I favor a fast first draft, that is flawed and even incomplete, but I can produce it quickly, within roughly two months. Then during the editing process, I pay attention to how the story flows, whether the characters are three-dimensional and interesting, and if everything clicks and pulls the reader in the story threads, in a way that creates anticipation for “what happens next”. Only after that, it’s time to look at the sentences in detail, examine the words, figure out whether the words are appropriate and whether they can be rephrased without alienating the reader. I have a preference for non-flowery sentences, favoring the substance and meaning instead of individual fancy words, but this is my personal preference and not a natural law.

    All of the above is one of the methods individual writers prefer to write. I know writers who insist on trying to get it perfect on the first draft, agonising over where word X or Y is the correct word. That is fine if that’s what they want to do, but I also know that these writers take years to finish a book and that is not something I want for myself (or even would work for me as a writer). I’ve tried “perfect” first drafts, and it led me nowhere.

    Finally, and as an ex-perfectionist still fighting with the remnants of that special hellish existence, I want to mention briefly that “perfection” is an unattainable mirage. Perfection is highly subjective. What you find horrible, I may see as perfect, and vice versa. I believe that if I spend time trying to tell stories as best as I can, instead of finding the “perfect” words, I will be a better (and more productive) writer. At the end of the day, mastery comes with presence and presence in writing comes from actually writing. If a writer’s goal is to produce perfect words, then fair enough. But if the objective is to tell stories, as many as possible, and do it as a primary job, then perfectionism is counter-productive.

    I don’t mean to sound negative, and I do agree that using the correct words and paying attention to wordsmithing is important. But it’s only one aspect of our work as writers and storytellers. Depending on the context, sometimes it’s one of the smallest aspects.

    • cslakin December 30, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Hi Aura, thanks for sharing all those thoughts. I’m a very prolific writer. Not only do I write my blog (upwards of 100k words a year), I write and publish around five books, novels and nonfiction. And I work full-time. I only say this to make a point: I believe what I said in my post. Counting words is not helpful to most writers. They focus on quantity, not quality. I critique 200+ manuscripts a year, and much of those millions of words are hastily written, not creative or structured well, etc. The bigger problem there, too, is the overall structure doesn’t work because the writer hasn’t taken time to learn novel structure and practice and apply those principles. Writers over time can learn to write fast and well, just as a person learning to do a skill increases speed and proficiency over time.

      I’m not talking about “fancy sentences.” I’m talking about making every word count. And I feel very strongly about that. Every word in a novel should be there for a reason and serve a purpose. If you’ve followed my blog this year and read all the posts on the fatal flaws of fiction writing, you’ll understand this. I don’t expect perfection in my own books, but I aim for it and get as close to it as possible. It’s an attitude of wanting to produce excellent work and value excellence and not accept mediocrity.

      And yes, the main point is we are storytellers, and we wield words to tell the best and most powerful story we can tell. Counting words will not get us there. Paying attention to the quality of writing, slowing down and experiencing life, and aiming for excellence, to me, is what great writing is all about. It may take many drafts, but this is an attitude I’m talking about.

      And clearly, a lot of unrecognized names (people) get published. It’s getting harder and harder, which is why so many authors, including myself and many other previously traditionally published authors, choose to self-publish. I’ve been able to make a great living off my published novels, and I’m launching an online course March 1 (which you’ll hear more about) that is all about targeting genre for big sales, which is what I finally did after 20+ years of great disappointment in publishing. Maybe that course will be helpful to you, although it’s off topic here.

      I hope in 2016 you’ll find time to write fiction and consider having me critique your work. One thing my clients greatly appreciate is getting help seeing why their novels aren’t getting published or picked up by agents, and a critique can reveal the weaknesses in a novel that the writer just can’t see.

      • Aura Eadon January 3, 2016 at 8:37 am #

        Sorry for the delay in answering, I thought I had ticked the notification of responses by email, but probably I forgot. I’ve just read your reply.

        First let me say this: blog, five books published, and 200+ manuscripts critiqued. That’s awesome, may I have what you’re having, please? In 2015, I managed two first drafts, a second draft that due to POV issues you could argue it was a complete rewrite, some blog posts, and one short story. That’s my fiction writing, which I view as my second and unpaid job. Outside fiction I had to write too, but obviously, it’s my fiction writing that I want to push ahead. My day job has nothing to do with writing (but I am looking for a writing job now).

        Now let me say how much I misunderstood your post. I thought you were talking about perfection via the first draft, where wordsmithing can take months, years, decades even. You were talking about process and story structure and yes I completely agree with you, the words need to be the correct ones and in the exact amount that is perfect for what the sentence wants to convey. Coming from a practical perspective and as a recovering perfectionist junkie, I have to say that unless there is some discipline of the type “I spend so much time on this, to make sure I get the whole book done” one can get lost in trying to achieve perfection. Probably why I reacted so strongly to your use of the word perfection.

        Regarding word counts perhaps it’s not obvious to you as you are already a disciplined writer who publishes five books a year, but for starting writers like me who try to become published authors word count is a measure of presence and persistence as well as an achievement. However, both writer support groups I participate, measure word counts as well as editing hours or 25-minute sprints of any quality writing. Again the point is for the writer to witness the achievement of amassing such presence and celebrate it. Perhaps later this won’t be necessary anymore. Word counts are just signposts in the journey. They are also reality checks. If my first draft ends less than 100,000 words, I know it’s roughly a correct size for a book (not taking into account the quality of a first draft). Not all writing can be measured in words. Subsequent drafts are about editing, not the word counts – but again we don’t disagree on any of that. And yes I’d rather go through many drafts before you or any publisher/agent looks at the work (I totally understand your frustration and why you are mentioning the word counts).

        Again sorry for the misunderstanding and thanks for your patience. I am currently starting draft 3 of one of the two novels I finished in 2015 which is going to be mainly the story arc and whether it flows well, together with characterisation. Given that I am not very experienced I am not sure how long this will take. What kind of notice do you need before you receive a manuscript?

  2. Deborah Coonts December 30, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    Totally agree, with a caveat (then I can’t TOTALLY agree, can I?:) The focus is on the story and making it the best it can be. Sentence structure, word choice, can help or hinder. And different genres require different choices. Regardless, the focus is on the words, the flow, the readability. After finishing a first draft, which is heavily edited as I go, I like to let the story rest and read it with “fresh” eyes. Then I fix it some more. then Beta readers. then more fixing. Then an editor. And…well, you get the drill. But, and here’s the caveat, at some point all the fixing no longer makes the story better (more readable.) I’m moving words around to no effect. Time to quit and put that puppy in the publishing pipeline. Some of my friends get so caught up in the “perfection” of their prose, they never publish the story….

  3. K.M. Weiland December 31, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    Hey, new site! It looks fab!

    • cslakin December 31, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

      Thanks, Katie! I just had my daughter (guru web designer at Stanford) put a new header on and change the font and colors. I started with a huge plan but it was unmanageable for now, so this works until the next iteration. Thanks for dropping in!

  4. Cat Dubie January 3, 2016 at 10:11 pm #

    Good post. I was nodding in agreement as I read each of your points. Some writers who hastily self publish without having their work professionally edited should read this and learn some truths. I’ve read novels that could be great if they weren’t buried beneath what I call rubbish words.

    And a note about too many beautiful words – some novels are written with such elegance and style that I pause after a fine sentence and marvel at the eloquence. As a result, the flow of the story, for me, is interrupted.

    • cslakin January 4, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

      Thanks, Cat. I agree, you can overdo it with “beautiful words.” But my point is that every word should be thought out and weighed, and just right for the sentence. Genre will play a big part in the style of prose. But I think most novels could benefit by some well-placed beautiful words or phrases. Beautiful doesn’t mean pretty. I’m thinking more fresh, unexpected, a turn of phrase or alliteration or some allusion that adds something special to otherwise mundane writing.

  5. Olivia Roach January 14, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    I have to agree about when it comes to writing – we do need to take our time and not rush through things. Grammar is vitally important and also saves time in terms of editing later one. I am so glad for school making grammar come as second nature to me!

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