By Evan Braun
Throughout the year, I’ve written on this blog a lot about the many hallmarks of inexperienced writers. My posts have ranged from commas punctuation mistakes to handling dialogue tags and citations, and one of the most important of all, handling point of view. I’ve spent a lot of time on grammar, because poor grammar is something that most readers pick up on, even if they don’t consciously realize what specifically is wrong. These have been fairly technical subjects, which is why today I’d like to change the subject to something a bit more conceptual.
But I’m not actually changing the subject, because today’s topic is still very much about the hallmarks of inexperienced writers. In fact, it may be the most important hallmark of all.
Some of the best and most celebrated writers of our times have fantastically complex styles. Their paragraphs are dense, their sentences long, their vocabularies extensive. These are not grade school novels, but complicated and nuanced stories geared for readers with college-level comprehension. They’re sophisticated!
Oh, and maybe they’re a little pretentious.
Sometimes this is a sign of a writer who’s truly at the top of his or her game. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking on sophisticated writers. Those who do it well tend to do it extraordinarily well. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem, from the perspective of a first-time novelist, is that instead of embracing and developing one’s own sense of style, writers fresh out of the gate often commit to their best Shakespeare impersonation. They pull out their thesauruses and choose the longest words they can find, even if they don’t make the most sense in the context of the sentence. They exert all their energy to say in twenty words or more what could have been more effectively communicated in ten. And yes, they use semicolons on every page!
Which is why some of my best and most frequent advice to authors is to keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to write conversationally. Especially when you’re working on a novel, there’s nothing wrong with crafting prose that’s grounded in your own experience. In fact, it’s a huge virtue. You don’t have to write the most sophisticated prose to tell a great story, to create interesting and relatable characters. If you don’t feel comfortable using the word “cogitation” in a sentence, don’t fret; the word “thought” will do nicely. It’ll probably be the better word choice anyway.
In short, stay grounded. While it’s good to stretch your skills, try to keep a toe or two on the ground at all times. It’s no coincidence that I often suggest the greatest numbers of cuts when I edit manuscripts from first-time writers; the tendency to over-reach is pervasive.
The age-old axiom “Write what you know” is often misunderstood, as though you shouldn’t write about being married if you’ve been single all your life, or set a story in Hawaii if in reality you’ve never been there. Indeed, that’s what research is for, which is why “Write what you know” is occasionally restated as “Write what you research.”
But another interpretation of “Write what you know” is “Write what feels true and natural to you.” Go ahead and state things simply. You needn’t boggle me with your mastery of the English language. Just use the words that best get your point across.
You don’t have to be “sophisticated,” but you do have to be true to yourself. Because in the same way that readers can pick up on poor grammar even when they haven’t mastered grammar themselves, they can also spot a phoney authorial voice a mile away.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.