Recognize Your Writing Flaws

Recognize Your Writing Flaws

I've written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I've found it's tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I'm sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I'm much better at getting work done.

But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you - because you've already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with "easy grace" or "knitting their eyebrows" and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these "contemporary clichés" as one teacher of mine called them. They're over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don't give us that. So let's discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.

First: understand the cause of the problem.

We write the same phrases over and over because they're a kind of shorthand. We know what we want to convey in this moment and we're often eager to get galloping on to when things get good. So we throw in a familiar description of a tree or a character's eyes because that doesn't matter, right? We just want to keep moving. The problem is that there can be no place in a story that just settles into familiar grooves. It makes the language lazy and the experience of reading feel dead.

Second: identify instances of the problem.

We won't be able to get out of the rut until we get good and recognizing the ruts. So as you're writing, try listening to the sound of the words in your head. Does it sound like something you've written before? Are you lingering on each word, enjoying its sound, or are you rushing through the way you would skim a legal document, eager to get to the Good Stuff later? Notice which parts of your story you rush through or skim over; the odds are, your reader will skim too, and become less engaged with your writing.

Third: change the milieu, change the conversation.

Once you've noticed yourself writing a phrase you've used before, or a vague phrase or just a kind of lazy phrase, stop for a moment and slow down. You're on your way to constructing a clichéd and superfluous scene; it's time to change the way you think about it. You've got to take yourself out of that dull, clichéd space. What if, instead of your character knitting his brows, he did something completely unexpected? What if he barked or backed away or got really angry? What if the scene went in a direction you didn't expect? On a micro language level, what if the sea looked orange instead of blue? What if her hair wasn't long and flowing but tangled and matted and full of dead leaves? What if that wolf sneezed instead of howled? There are so many ways you can step out of the rut of familiar images and phrases. In fact, you have the width of the entire world to explore, with only that one narrow choice - that world in which men only do one thing when they are angry and women only look one way when they cry - shutting your story down.