In this post, Nancy Fulda, editor at Jim Baen’s Universe asks the question: is writing about style, while in this excellent post the editors of the Editorrent blog try to define what style issues mark an amateur writer.
I’ve thought about this for a bit, and have come to the conclusion that the writing ‘rules’, so despised by some, are trying define ‘good writing’. As in: good writing is any writing that doesn’t *insert long list of nonos here*. I’ve also come to the conclusion that it’s really hard to define good writing.
In the past few months of slush reading at ASIM, I have found some submissions where I’ve thought YES, this is good writing. It flows, it’s easy to read, it captures emotion. Such submissions might still be rejected for plot reasons, but I’m talking about writing style here. I’ve also found that for me, it’s mostly a black-and-white issue. Either the style flows for me, or it goes clunkity-clunk. There are no, or very few, in-betweens.
Defining what is flowing writing is much harder. It’s writing that doesn’t trip you up.
Simpler is better in the vast majority of cases. If you go out of your way to find ways to say something in an interesting manner, then chances are the slush person reading it will be snorting all over their keyboard (not in a good way).
Repetition is death, especially of medium-use words, for example a word like door or chair, or other objects or pieces of furniture. If a writer cannot describe how a character went into a room and found their possessions ransacked without mentioning the words room and door three times each in the same paragraph, then they’re out.
Filter language. Stuff like she felt, she heard, she saw. Most of it just adds filler verbiage and adds no extra meaning to the sentence. Use only when the feeling, seeing and hearing is an important part of the scene (which is: not very often).
Stage directions. Cluttering action with too-precise descriptions of what the characters were doing. This really deadens a piece of writing.
Adverbs, adjectives, said-bookisms, and the list of use-them-and-die words (like ‘that’, ‘something’, ‘then’ etc). Meh. Totally meh. Only one thing applies to these (and all other devices in writing): DON’T OVERUSE. And that pretty much applies to all the above.
Mostly, the reader needs to feel comfortable in the writer’s ability, and trust that the writer can deliver a story without waffle.
And the reasons for this trust are both personal and very hard to define. Which is why people like to use ‘the rulez’. Which we all agree don’t work, or at least not always.
No one ever said this was easy.