Seven Deadly Sins for Novel Writing: Sin V

Sin # 5: Flat Wordsmithing

We've all heard the phrase, 'The writing is flat.' The question is, what does that really mean?

Flat writing is where the prose lies dead on the page. Descriptions, characters and stakes are conveyed in such a bland manner that the reader ceases to care. Either the writer lacks the confidence in their writing style to get their ideas across in a way that holds shape, or they need to work on their ability to bring that texture and balance into their manuscript. Flat wordsmithing can disguise itself in many forms, so this is something we all need to be on the lookout for.

Descriptive Woes

Description is the writer's most powerful tool in translating what they see in their head onto the page. Not only does it breathe life into settings, characters and emotions, it is one area where honing our skills IS A MUST. Flat description often happens when the writer doesn't strive hard enough to utilize the five senses.

Sensory feedback also comes to us in every breath, movement, sound, and taste. Why should writing be any less dimensional? Tastes, textures, sounds, smells...well anyone who uses this blog regularly knows my descriptive thesaurus collections are all about utilizing these senses in addition to sight. When describing, take advantage of the range of senses. The reward is a much more vivid experience for the reader.

Poor Word Choice

Repeat after me: THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Strong verbs. Accurate modifiers. Stay away from walking fast if you're really sprinting or lurching, don't drop a cup of juice when you can have it smash against the floor and spray yellow ropes of liquid across the cupboard.

Always strive to find the strongest, most apt words to describe...while remaining firmly seated in the narrator's range of knowledge and speech and true to your voice. In other words, if the POV character/narrator is a 10 year old girl living on a farm, she's not going to sound like a Harvard graduate when describing the world around her.

And while using that thesaurus, remember it needs to be used in moderation. One or two strong descriptors are better than a paragraph of purple prose.

Over Baked Ideas

Cliches. Well-worn descriptions. White as a bone? A rosebud smile? Breaking up with your BF under an umbrella in a rainstorm? Two words: RUN AWAY.

Often the first thing that comes to mind is a well-worn description or something that could border on the cliche. Don't feel bad about this! I doubt there's a writer out there who hasn't penned a cliche during the heat of the first draft. But anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that's what revision is all about. If you spot something that feels a little too familiar, stretch yourself into brainstorming a new way to get this description across to the reader.

Grammar, Punctuation, Style


I'd say probably 90% of writers have a passionate dislike for these three words. I think of them as a necessary evil, like taxes and politicians. A working knowledge of sentence structure, punctuation and grammar is important. Nothing stops a reader faster than poor wording, run on sentences or bad grammar. And spelling? We're all guilty of a missed typo now and again, but no manuscript should go without an affectionate rub down via Spell Check.

Some writers use the excuse that rules are 'made to be broken' to get out of the tedium of learning P & G. The concept of rule breaking is filled with debate--can we? Should we? Certainly. Done right, the writer can achieve great things. Done wrong, they look like a hack. Bottom line: know grammar and punctuation inside and out before attempting to break a rule and have a good reason for doing so.

To avoid flat writing, be aware of sentence structure. Sentences with little or no variation (all long and unwieldy, or too choppy) can ruin the experience for the reader. The good news on this one is, the more you practice, the more that variation becomes second nature. :)

Under-developed Ideas, Characters and General Vagueness.

Know the manuscript. If the writer doesn't know their characters very well or is a little hazy on what they are doing or feeling, it shows. If the writer tunes out during a passage of writing, you can bet the reader will too. Look for flat places during re-reads and spiff them up through development and better description.

Can you think of other ways the writing can appear flat?

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19 comments:

Angela said...

Sorry this is a touch late--I had planned it for the start of the week before realizing it was my blog-a-versay!

Karen Lange said...

The thesaurus is my friend. Just didn't want to forget to say it!

Always enjoy my stops to your blogs. Thanks for all the good info:)

Anton Gully said...

When I'm writing I almost always have thesaurus.com open in a tab on my browser.

I'm re-reading alot of pulps right now... flat writing was never a problem for Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E Howard, but I don't think you'd get away with writing like that now.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

Vocabulary is something I feel is missing from a lot of writers. I myself struggle to balance with using big and obscure words, and keeping prose more acceptible to the common person.

Iapetus999 said...

your is good post and me, like.
:)

I'll throw this out and see what you think--
I like to make descriptions happen, IOW, introduce verbs.

So instead of "the apple was red" I'd write "the apple gleamed red" or "the apple tasted red" or something. (I'm more creative outside of Blogger)

A lot of the time the issues can be traced to boring verbs like was, looked, etc. I have a huge list of "flat" verbs I try to avoid.

MG Higgins said...

Ack, I so need to work on more active verbs. This is a really informative post. Thank you! And the photo is great. Really gets your point across.

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

I agree with Ravin: I'm not seeing a lot of interesting vocabulary in the stuff I read these days. The emphasis on simple and straightforward language is good, but sometimes specificity requires a three-syllable word. God forbid that a reader should have to look up a word in the dictionary!

I write with a thesaurus handy and I read with a dictionary at hand, as well. But, then I'm old fashioned and I love rare and interesting words.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Years ago, I purchased a Synonym Finder when studying Sign Language. Now, I also use it to locate the perfect word. :)

Blessings,
Susan

zellakate said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed the series on the seven deadly sins of writing. I am taking notes! :)

This one has really helped me, because though I love my thesaurus as next as the next word nerd, I am not always skilled at description. This post helped remind me of things I have trouble with. Thanks!

jessjordan said...

Sometimes, I get so excited by my story and want to move it forward so quickly that I get wrapped up in dialog and forget to incorporate all the senses. That's something I'll definitely have to look for on a read through. Thanks for the reminder to be more attentive!

Bish Denham said...

Great post! I LOVE my thesaurus, an ancient tome published in 1930. It is full of archaic and obsolete words and phrases.

Anonymous said...

Just curious.

Are you saying writing about someone running away is cliche or that writers should run away from cliches?

:-)

Angela said...

Thanks Karen!

Anton, I love Thesaurus.com. another really good one is the Reverse Dictionary. I am on that ALL THE TIME.

Raven, some books I see are 'watered down' a bit as far as colorful word choices, but the one's I've read usually fit the sparse tone needed for the type of book it is. I think that's the main thing--to make sure the reason for the vocabulary and the richness of description (or not) is justified. If it isn't, then yes, it becomes a disappointment to the reader. Thanks for chiming in!

Lapetus--I agree, using verbs in that sense can work well as long as two things happen: there is variation (so the structure isn't overused) and that anything actively described is purposeful (if the apple doesn't have a part in the story or doesn't symbolize something significant, whether it's gleaming or not is irrelevant).

Having a list of flat verbs is great for revision!

MG, glad the post helps!

Meredith, I think that no matter who the audience is, its okay to challenge the reader now and then with a vocabulary choice as long as it fits the story. Reading is all about exploring and experiencing something new. :-)

Susan, that's great!

Zellakate, I struggle with description as well--there are so many things to juggle like making sure relevant things are being described, that emotion comes forth, how much to describe, tailoring the description to fit the tense level of the scene...I feel like writers are master jugglers. All we can do is keep practicing and strengthen our skills. :-)

Jess, I do the same thing. Then, once I'm revising, I work to bring in more senses. Revisions are an opportunity to do better in all aspects!

Bish, I would be lost without my thesaurus. Make sure to check out the Reverse dictionary, too. It's great when you kinda-sorta know the word you want, or the type of word. It gives you everything related to the word you're working with. Try something like 'Fear' and see all the related things that pop up. :-)

http://www.onelook.com/reverse-dictionary.shtml

Angela said...

Anon--I definitely meant that writers should stay away from cliches whenever possible. Characters running is just fine!

There are rare circumstances when cliches are okay to use. Here's a post I did awhile back on those instances:

http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.com/2009/02/clichessafe-to-use.html

Vijaya said...

For a book that's rich in language (and story), read Laini Taylor's Lips Touch.

I agree that a thesaurus is essential.

Mary Witzl said...

Uh oh: I LOVE grammar, punctuation, and style. Am I really in the minority?

I've got a problem with weak verbs too and for years, I was a serial adverb abuser. But knowing is half the battle and I'm well on the path to reform!

Kathy McIntosh said...

Great information here. Trying to keep it all in my head as I write is an issue.
Love the photo!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Read. Print. Absorb. File. Keep Handy. This is my Bookshelf Muse mantra. :-)

Iris Zevlac said...

I know I'm very late commenting on this but I really loved it! Whenever people talk about flat writing, I always feel that I have it, but I'm not sure what is causing it! This has totally helped me see it:)
However I don't think that Spell Check is the best thing for checking grammar and spelling. It can be helpful, but ALWAYS have someone else look over it, or wait until a later time and read it over again. Spell Check won't catch words that are spelled correctly, but aren't the correct word for the sentance!
Love your blog:)

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