Have you ever stopped reading, not because the story itself was bad, but because the author’s phrasing was awkward? Few annoyances push me back into the real world faster than unwieldy prose. In the right combinations, words are beautiful and engaging. But in the wrong combinations, they grate on the ear and hinder an otherwise enjoyable experience.
The sky’s the limit to the number of clichés that can infiltrate writing. In fact, I intend to dump a truckload into this article to illustrate why writers should avoid them like the plague. However, I also believe we ought to tip our hats to clichés. Because the phrases were crafted well, people repeated them until overuse rubbed off the gilding. Now they’re commonplace. But I still appreciate their origins, and I’m going to show you how to dig out the creative potential buried beneath them.
Editing is easy to overdo. You open your latest draft to restructure a scene, but as you reread your work to get your bearings, you can’t resist tinkering with a clunky paragraph in the previous chapter. Then you remember a worldbuilding element you need to research so you can use it to set the mood when your protagonist meets her love interest. And soon you’ve spent an hour brainstorming the perfect analogy for his blue eyes.
One of the biggest challenges we face as writers is the process of translating our ideas into chunks of text that seem much more bland than the characters, settings, and themes did in our imaginations. Once we’ve filled the page, our next hurdle is to make our words both understandable and inviting to readers.
After you’ve written a paragraph, have you ever stopped to squint at the words, wondering if you’ve chosen the right ones to convey the mood you intended? Did you manage to craft a distinct voice for your viewpoint character, or does the narrative sound too much like you? Are your commas placed correctly?
On my first read of The Book Thief, the peerless prose stunned me. I wanted to achieve Zusak’s skill, but I didn’t know how. So I began a nightly experiment to see if any techniques would emerge.
When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Language strung together that you don’t understand but somehow exemplifies the standard of literary beauty? Sentences that drop off in the middle and flow onto the line below?
If you’ve ever toured an art museum, you can’t walk far without confronting the power of images. The paintings tell stories of animals, families, wars, and kings, each holding a special significance for onlookers.
Every fiction writer has fallen in love with stories and dreams of engaging readers the same way. Few, however, are interested in poetry. In our modern age, this art form fights a losing battle against flashier entertainment.
I used to avoid nonfiction—in both reading and writing—until I discovered that creative nonfiction employs literary techniques usually associated with fiction. How could this be? And would trying it expand my skills?