Rewrite it Until it No Longer Looks Like Writing

Chapter-1I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like the idea that there are “rules” of writing. There are rules to writing in a certain way, sure, but that’s a very different thing.

In this day and age, there are certain traits that you’ll find in most modern popular fiction. And one of those traits is to write in a way that is almost invisible.

The crime fiction master Elmore Leonard was a perfect example of this. He once said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” A simple concept, summed up in his perfectly brief style.

That doesn’t mean you have to incorporate the brevity of Leonard if you want to write in a way that resonates with a contemporary audience. Nor should you try. (I always thought that his famous “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing” essay should have been called “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard”.)

It’s just that these days, readers often want a frictionless experience. Things need to be effortless to read. If I have to stop and look up a word, you’re taking me out of the story for one moment. You’re increasing the odds that you’ll lose me. I worry that there’s some very talented modern upcoming authors out there who read the “canon” of great literature, and are indoctrinated to write like the old masters. These are the best novels of all time, so you should aspire to write like them. That’s what many new writers believe.

The problem with that train of thought is that the likes of Hardy, Dickens, etc., were all products of their time, just like we are now. There was a “canon” during Dickens’ time that, of course, wouldn’t have included Dickens. He didn’t write great works so people could study them. He wrote what people wanted to read back then, even if they didn’t always realise it. Dickens wasn’t the Shakespeare of his day, he was the James Patterson or David Baldacci of his day. It’s almost a sacrilegious thing to say about him in certain circles these days. But it doesn’t stop it being true.

So if you feel your work is only validated by having the fanciest prose, please feel free to stop clinging onto that notion. Write cleanly and easily. If it’s easy to read for a contemporary audience, then 99% of the time, it’ll travel much further.

The problem that often occurs with long “wordy” moments, is that your reader can end up feeling like they’re wasting their time. They might start even skipping long unnecessary bits, as you drag out events, descriptions or other pieces, for no good reason.

A reader’s mind is a powerful thing. They will fill in the blanks themselves. My last book, Succession of Power, contains only one description of the protagonist, Secret Service Agent Mike Stevens. The morning of the main story’s events, he has a shave before going to work.

That’s it. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he’s black or white, or green with pink polka-dots. We know nothing about him. But the feelings he has, the words he speaks, and the actions he takes help form a picture in your mind of him; even if your picture is radically different the one formed in the mind of another reader.

Anyway, this is just my observation from doing this for some time. It’s not a rule, but if it feels like one to you, then please, tear it up. Trust your gut. What feels right for your story may very well be right.