Writers in the Storm

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February 6, 2015

Margie’s Rule # 8:  Beware of Writerly!

Margie Lawson

 writingIf you wish review the rule that started it all... Margie-Rule #1: Never Take Any Word for Granted. Or read the whole series!

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.

Um. Wow!

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.

  1. He gave me a sardonic
  2. My foot found purchase.
  3. I gave him a dismissive
  4. He ascended the stairs.
  5. Her hope was submerged.
  6. He released her from his embrace.
  7. He propelled me toward the receiving line.
  8. 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.

  1. “Stop scratching.” Shannon drew my hand away from my neck.
  2. I didn’t bother to hide my disdain.
  3. Rob diverted his gaze.
  4. He expelled a laugh.
  5. She tried to suppress her lips from showing her reaction.
  6. She unfolded herself from the chair.
  7. Rex put his hands on my shoulders and pivoted me to face him.
  8. 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.


Post a comment and you could win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

Check out the courses offered by Lawson Writer's Academy in March:

  1. Scene and Sequel—Superpowered Writing Tool, Instructor: Kathleen Baldwin
  2. Screenwriting Strategies for Fiction Writers, Susie McCauley
  3. Taming Twitter and Facebook Too! Instructor: Julie Rowe
  4. Digging Deep Into Deep POV, Instructor: Rhay Christou
  5. Avoiding Author Meltdown, Instructor: Susannah Scott
  6. Getting Serious About Writing a Series, Instructor: Lisa Wells

The drawing will be Sunday, Feb. 8th, 8:00 PM Mountain Time.

See you on the blog!

All smiles................Margie

About Margie

Margie LawsonMargie Lawsoneditor, 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.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Columbus, Jacksonville, Houston, and on Whidbey Island), her full day Master Class presentations, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.MargieLawson.com.

89 comments on “Margie’s Rule # 8:  Beware of Writerly!”

  1. Oh Margie, this is perfect timing for me. I'm at the black moment of Harlie's story (remember the bull-jumper?), and when I struggle, I open the Thesaurus. This is a good reminder of which words to choose when I get there!

    Thank you, as always, for your wisdom.

    1. Laura --

      I love that bull jumping expanding time scene!

      Glad you'll avoid writerly words and phrases. Every page.

      Miss you! Hope I get to see you this year!

  2. I love that Elmore Leonard quote—and I love Margie's advice. It's easier for me to notice "writerly" phrases in others work, and I hate tripping over pretentious sentences. Alas, I'm sure there are a few *ahem* in my own work. Thanks for the reminder. Bookmarking this post for future reference.

  3. Yes, Margie. Hopefully, we can catch any that slip through in line editing.
    Good reminder.

  4. Elmore Leonard is one of my favs, and my wife and I both love Justified.

    But I've recently been in contact with numerous British and European writers and their work. It's reminded me of something I knew once, having learned English when I started kindergarten (though I'm born and raised Texan 🙂 ) - what sounds "natural" or in this case, non-writerly, is definitely writerly to someone beyond the cultural boundary involved.

    And even now, I can "hear" the similar tone and cadence of language from the characters in Justified, as I can in Mad Men, and even the recently finished Parenthood. I think at some point it's inescapable. Hemingway wanted to be invisible (vs his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald), yet both styles are easily recognizable now.

    None of this though, I believe, negates any of the very valuable reminders and suggestions regarding being true to a character, going deep in pov.

    I just think that at some point, one must begin to flow with one's own style, whatever it is. And if we have a voice, we have a style. Even if it meshes so well with the world around us, it takes time and distance to realize, it too is writerly.

    Loved the post Margie, thanks so much 🙂

    1. Hello Felipe --

      Another Elmore Leonard fan!

      Yes. Deep POV rules. And visceral responses rule. And fresh writing rules. And flow. And content and clarity and cadence. And sharing subtext with fresh body language and dialogue cues. And...

      Loved your post! Thank you for chiming in!

  5. Great post as always, Margie. And I love NCIS but not so much without Ziva. So I will use our fav show because TV and film can highlight what you are talking about.

    The difference between the characters of Ziva and Bishop. We know that both of them are acting, but one (Bishop) of them "acts like an actor," the other one (Ziva) "becomes the character." Like many say about Meryl Streep ... she never acts, she becomes the character.

    If we become the character in our stories, we have much less risk of "writing" a character and more of "being" the character. Thanks as always 🙂

    1. Florence --

      Love your analogy. Smart, smart, smart!

      I miss Ziva. She was the character. A believable character. A stay-in-your-heart character.

      Thank you, as always!

    1. Alanna --

      I know what else you could do to make your writing stronger. Review the lectures from my courses. There may be some courses you missed. 🙂

    1. Hey Winona!

      I can't wait to work with you at West Texas Writer's Academy in June. A whole week of digging deep into deep editing!

      You took some of my classes, years ago. Reviewing the lectures would be smart too. And I know you're smart!

  6. Yes! Yes.... I wholeheartedly agree. I've heard the phrase "purple prose" and believe that is similar. Recently I dealt with my elderly aunt who dug her heels in saying basically that purple prose is literary and genre is junk.... Well, we all have our opinions so I insisted she read my YA fantasy paranormal....Lol. Yeah. Amazingly she told me it was "rambunctious" and why would I label it YA? What was that? She's not kept up with the writing world today, but I was flattered. She liked it! And I think it opened her mind, just a tad.

  7. Leonard Elmore's writing shows character Deep POV at its best, Margie. Thanks for this timely post. I'm in revisions now, and getting into my character's skin is one of my favorite parts of writing.

  8. I love Elmore Leonard's books and you can see when you read them that he took his own advice. I have a tendency to get writerly in my rough drafts but when I go back and polish, I always ask myself if my character would really think like this. If the answer is no, then out it goes no matter how pretty or pleasing the words.

  9. I discovered Deep POV in a workshop given by Suzanne Brockmann, and I swear by it for my writing. You're so right about making sure the narrative "matches" the character and isn't the author stepping in. I think about 'writerly stuff' when I go through my editing process and am tempted to replace a "normal" word with a "fancy" one. Stronger ones, yes. Thesaurus-sounding ones, no.

  10. Reminds me to live in my character, and not think too much! An article I will save in my "Writing" folder.

    1. Hello Linda --

      Great to e-meet you! Glad the blog resonated.

      If you're not familiar with my online courses and lecture packets, drop by my website and check them out. Dozens of deep edit learning opportunities!

    1. Hellooooooo Jenny!

      I love you so much, I'm happy to pound, tap, knuckle, and drill deep editing into your head. 🙂

      Your writing is already strong. With deep editing it's award-winning stellar!

  11. Great post, as always, and super timing. I'm doing last edits on my 3rd book before it goes off for formatting. Will definitely check for "writerly" stuff. Afraid, I'll find a few places. Sometimes my "principal" voice creeps into my writing. Staying in deep POV is the key. Thanks.

    1. Hey Marsha --

      Book 3? Time rockets!

      Glad you'll do a check for writerly stuff. Miss you. Hope I get to work with you in your second Immersion class this year, or next year. I'm teaching 17 Immersion classes this year. Maybe I'll see you in the fall.

  12. Great post, Margie. What confuses me is how you seem to know when I've finished an edit, because you never fail to come up with another excellent pointer. End result is that I have to do ANOTHER run-through of the WIP to see how many sins I've committed! -- Maybe it'll be a good read when it's done. I hope. Thanks again--

    1. Hey Danica!

      Great to see you here. I'd love to get together! Let's match schedules.

      Congratulations again on your November release -- HIS SURPRISE SISTER. I'm so thrilled for you!

    1. Hello Shirley!

      Great to e-meet you. I don't believe I've seen you in my online classes.

      Glad my blog was helpful. It's just one tiny morsel of my huge deep editing smorgasbord. If you have questions about what I teach, feel free to contact me through my website.

  13. A great post, but makes me think carefully about my genre (Regency) and whether my characters might have had more stilted, "writerly" thoughts and dialogue. I can't imagine my heroine saying, "Bull*$&%," but she very likely might say "Preposterous" or "Absurd." It's a delicate balance!

    1. Justine --

      You're right. Characters in historicals may have some thoughts and dialogue that would be considered writerly in a contemporary.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  14. Just finished my January LWA Class with Lisa Wells. Highly recommend "30 Days to a Stronger Novel". I'm tweaking my wip based upon lessons learned before I send the requested full to an agent!

    1. Hello Leslie!

      I enjoyed chatting with you at RWA National last year!

      Thank you for sharing kudos for the 30 Days to a Stronger Novel class by Lisa Wells!

      Lisa Wells is an amazingly gifted teacher. She teaches three courses for Lawson Writer's Academy and they are all stellar.

      Lisa is teaching GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT WRITING A SERIES in March. Smart class!

      1. Hi Margie,

        Thanks for the kind words.

        I mention Elmore Leonard in my new Dialogue Class - he's considered one of the masters of dialogue.

        I can't wait to see you in person in March.


  15. I've never thought about this at all. Many thanks for pointing this out. This is a blog I'm going to have to reread and think about.

    1. Hello Jane!

      Great to e-meet you. I don't believe we've met.

      If you're not familiar with the online courses I teach, or the lecture packets for my courses, I hope you drop by my website. If you have questions, feel free to contact me through my website. Thank you!

  16. Perfecting timing for a reminder, Margie. I looked back at some work and realized I've been trying to stay ahead of writerly writing on backstory by having someone else tell what happened to make my main character who he/she is.

  17. Writerly words . . . when I first started writing I used these words, thinking how brilliant. Fancy words that show off how smart I am. Then I took Margie-ized classes, found stellar critique partners, and no longer use writerly words. Writing isn't about fancy words. Writing is about making your characters believable. Forever a Margie fan!

  18. This (as usual) is a brilliant post. It really rings true. I recently read a YA novel in which the protagonist (a sixteen year old boy) kept saying 'for' as in, "I knew I was in trouble FOR the police man turned towards me." At first it was a curiosity, then an irritation. By the end of the book I was obsessed, it poked me in the eye every time it was used and wrenched me out of the story. It was a good book ruined for me by a three letter word.

  19. Very insightful! Many times when I write I'm tripping over my own shoes, climbing into another brain to use his experiences and juggle flow of language. Thank you for reminding me that I can run faster if I leave my shoes behind 🙂

  20. It really is all about the better fit Margie! Thanks for this wonderful post, I hear you on the slide into writerly, I do it too often.
    Love your work, thanks for everything you do to help us writers.


  21. Hi Margie! You have a wonderful way of teaching in your post. The reminder about diluting the power of the moment is very helpful. My experiences acting, directing, teaching theatre and counseling all help with getting into the character's head. Have you even considered including an acting class at one of your in person writers training events?

    1. Gail --

      I love teaching! So glad you like my style.

      I'm teaching 17 Immersion classes this year. Immersions are 4-day intensives, and usually two of those nights we act out scenes. Enrollment is limited to 7. We dig deep into deep editing. Acting out scenes is great for choreography and body language and dialogue. And - it's so fun too!

      Thanks for chiming in. Hope I get to meet you someday!

  22. This is a great post. I write historicals, so the language is often stilted *because* the characters speak and think in different rhythms than we do. One of my characters might very well ascend the stairs, just as a matter of course. Difficult balance.

  23. Oh, how do I get away from that nicey-nice writer persona? I want my characters to be strong or extremely weak or anything but ME! Which is, of course, nicey-nice. What is interesting to me is the fact that over the years (decades, really) characters have endured and will endure as nothing else on the earth will. Who will ever forget Scarlet? Or Gibbs? LOL Thanks for pointing out all the fun we can have with language, Margie.

  24. Margie,

    Your blog makes damn good sense. I think it'd also be fun to have more examples of the NICEY-NICE. Maybe another blog for another day...

    Best wishes,


  25. I've always called that "author intrusion". I think I like "writerly" better. Never drag readers out of the story to remind them that the story was written by someone.

    BTW, I love Gibbs and his rules, even if he does reuse the numbers sometimes. 🙂

  26. I always need more clarification around "writerly" so I'm really grateful for this post, thank you!
    What really spoke to me was your comment, "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." I am afraid to repeat words and your answer gave me permission. I'm still daunted by this task and will keep looking to you for more key learning, thank you Margie!

  27. Working on revisions with an eye toward indie publishing this year. Good reminders - I'll be referring back to this post.

  28. This is all fantastic advice--especially the part here that focuses on point of view. It's a great reminder to all of us to trust the reader to draw the necessary inferences.

  29. Great checklist, and great reminders. I really need to be aware of Nicey-Nice. And it can be so easy to slip into writerly writing. I will use this article as a reference when I’m editing. Thank you!

  30. Hello Everyone!

    So fabulous to see ALL OF YOU here!

    Wish I could sit down and chat with each of you. Lots of new faces.

    Random.org selected the winner.

    And the winner is.................NIKKI WESTON!

    Nikki won an online course from Lawson Writer's Academy!

    Congratulations Nikki! I just Facebook messaged you.

    I will respond to all comments within a day or two.

    I had fun with you all!

    If you're not familiar with my online courses, or my lecture packets, please drop by my web site. If you have questions, feel free to contact me through my website, or message me on Facebook.

    I look forward to seeing you all again.

    1. Ah, I'm tickled all over to hear that Margie! Can't wait to attend another of your amazing classes! My sincere thanks and best wishes.


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