Are you an NCIS fan? A Jethro Gibbs fan? A Mark Harmon fan?
If you said YES, you know Jethro Gibbs has rules. Smart rules. I wanted smart rules too.
Margie’s Rule #8: Beware of "Writerly!"
Writerly is my term for writing in a way that sounds more like the writer than the character.
Writers know they are supposed to limit backstory. Writers know they are supposed to avoid clichés. Cautions about backstory and clichés are in every basic how-to book for writers.
I don’t see cautions about what I call writerly writing.
Elmore Leonard, NYT Bestselling mystery/suspense writer, has the best quote that defines my take on writerly writing.
If it sounds like a writer wrote it, rewrite. – Elmore Leonard
Kudos to Elmore Leonard!
If his name doesn’t trigger an immediate reaction, these book, movie, and TV Series titles might:
Tens of millions of his books are in print.
Back to Elmore Leonard’s quote.
If it sounds like a writer wrote it, rewrite.
– Elmore Leonard
Writing that’s writerly doesn’t sound natural.
It may be dialogue or an internalization.
If something sounds like it was written by a writer, it doesn’t sound natural for that character to have said or thought those words.
Some writers may be great at writing dialogue that sounds right for that character. But the character’s thoughts sound like a writer wrote them. They don’t sound like words or phrases that character would think.
You may be wondering, what’s wrong with writerly writing?
So what? Who cares?
The problem is keeping the reader locked in the scene. If the writing is writerly, it’s not a strong fit for the character. The reader is less engaged. Less likely to keep reading.
How do you avoid writerly?
You go deep into deep POV, explore the character’s emotional set, and ask yourself what words they would use in dialogue and in their thoughts.
- Imagine being in that scene. Imagine if you were that character. Consider their life.
- How they were raised. What’s happened to them.
- Put yourself in that character’s skin and heart.
- What’s their relationship with the non-POV character?
- What’s the POV character’s emotional set?
- How would they react? What would they say? What would they think?
- What words would they choose?
The writer has to get out of their own way. Cliché alert. 🙂
They have to become less cognitive, more reactive. When a stimulus presents, think colored-by-emotions first responses, not processed responses.
Writerly writing may be beautiful. It may be perfectly cadenced. It may have power words and backloading. It may have perfect words, but those words may not be ones that character would use at that time.
Beware of Diluting the Power!
Sometimes it’s the little things that are writerly.
Writers may slip good details in a scene, but they do it in a way that dilutes the power.
A character who is upset wouldn’t think about the color of the couch they sit on.
A character who puts on a hat wouldn’t think about the color of their hair.
A character talking to their spouse usually wouldn’t say the names
Here are a few examples of what I usually call writerly. Some are cliched and writerly.
I am not saying these sentences are always undesirable. Some may be perfect for a particular character.
- He gave me a sardonic
- My foot found purchase.
- I gave him a dismissive
- He ascended the stairs.
- Her hope was submerged.
- He released her from his embrace.
- He propelled me toward the receiving line.
- He questioned his cavalier attitude toward self-preservation.
Some of those examples may not seem writerly. They may sound right to you because you’re used to reading them. You may be used to writing them.
You may think what I consider writerly is what writers are supposed to write.
Ask yourself if the words you put on the page are your best choice for that character in that situation.
Beware of Nicey-Nice!
Some writers fall into what I call Nicey-Nice. They choose reactions and words that are nicer than their characters could use.
It’s hard for those writers to step out of their nicey-nice response set. If a character wishes they could do something really strong, maybe really wrong, it may be your best choice.
More examples of writerly.
- “Stop scratching.” Shannon drew my hand away from my neck.
- I didn’t bother to hide my disdain.
- Rob diverted his gaze.
- He expelled a laugh.
- She tried to suppress her lips from showing her reaction.
- She unfolded herself from the chair.
- Rex put his hands on my shoulders and pivoted me to face him.
- I grab her hand so fast she doesn’t have time to evade me.
Where’s your spotlight?
In examples 4 – 8, the spotlight is on the bolded letters. Not what the writer intended.
Be sure you have the spotlight on the words you want to emphasize. The ones that share the power.
Sometimes writers try too hard to avoid using a word they recently used. But a gun is a gun is a gun. It may work to use weapon or revolver or the type of gun as long as the word choice has to fit the character.
Writerly, Writerly, Writerly
Is writerly writing a contract breaker? Probably not. We see writerly lines in print. We see I-can’t-believe-that-got-published in print too.
Writerly writing falls in the small stuff category. Definitely not horrible. But we know too many things in the small stuff category can make agents, editors, reviewers, and readers stop reading.
Beware of writerly writing. It only takes seconds to choose words that are a better fit.
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Margie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over ninety full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. She’s excited to share that Romance Writers of Australia is bringing her back to present at their conference next summer.
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