What is meant by a writer’s “style”? I’m not referring to MLA or Harvard or APA style; nor am I referring to terms such as “expository,” “Journalistic,” or “academic.” In the context of book authors, I’m talking about a writer’s unique voice; the way a writer strings words and phrases together on a page; the method by which a writer can engender fear or sympathy or suspense in a reader. These things can be as much about setting, atmosphere, and characters, as they can be about sentence construction and word usage. I’ll focus on word choice and attributions in this post.
The first word choice for me is always Microsoft Word. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) While it has its own inherent shortcomings, as does all software, it is by far the most powerful word processing program. For the purpose of this post, It has some very useful features (as you probably know, since most writers use this program). For those who might find this helpful, here’s some tips.
Use Search and Replace to find all those overused words and phrases. When your search lands on one of those words, click that word once (on the highlight on the page) and then re-write that sentence, or replace that word with something more vivid, more unusual, more powerful, more meaningful.
I have a personal list of the words and phrases I have overused in the past (I think I’m better about it now, after editing for it so often). While you’re writing, don’t worry about those things. It’s okay, because then, you are getting the story down, and now, you’re putting on your editing hat.
You get the idea.
Here’s a little heads-up. You know that text program, NoteTab Lite, I’ve mentioned? It has a feature called Text Statistics where you can paste in your text and check it for the frequency of word use. (“Yes, I use words frequently” -are you saying? Well, then, you are a smart ass. And it takes one to know one). This feature also does word and character count.
Okay, back to the list of words.
Here is a list of commonly overused words you can search for in your manuscript. Also look for the variations thereof, or et al, such as walk/walked/walking.
This list is by no means comprehensive, and can be as endless as each writer’s individuality. Mainly, just be aware of plain words that don’t color your descriptions properly. It’s a fabulous exercise to try to find another way to say something. It stretches your writing muscles in a most satisfying way. (Careful not to pull a Writing Ligament, there’s no salve for that). There are so many nuances, and you can miss out on some fantastic writing by not keeping this in mind. Here is a list (not comprehensive, either, but important) of errors or amateurish mistakes to eliminate from your manuscript, to keep an agent or editor reading it from rolling her eyes and tossing it into the Round File.
Stylistic things to avoid:
Try to avoid it. It’s not immediate, and is usually boring and verbose. The only time you should use past tense is when you’re referring to the past and that needs to be clear. For instance, in a flashback
- Use Word’s search and replace tool again. Look for GERUNDS-words ending in “ing”-and was/were/had and make them present tense, if at all possible
Your writing can become bloated, flowery, predictable and even confusing Try to avoid using adjectives and adverbs altogether.
- Instead use more descriptive nouns and verbs
They clutter up the dialogue, are distracting, and smack of ineptitude
- Leave most “saids” out; In other cases, show action along with the statement
Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Baggage, to illustrate the conservative style of attributions:
|“Mental fugues?” Sienna asked. “You’ll have to elaborate on that over dinner.”
“Not until you tell me how you met that vermin.”
“I’ll think about it.” She started walking toward her car.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the hotel.”
“It’s almost dinner time, why don’t you follow me home?”
She continued to her car, as he strode after her. “Because I’m not a puppy.”
“Oh my god, woman. You are really playing me, aren’t you?”
She opened her door and turned to him. “Not at all. I simply don’t want to appear desperate.”
“You don’t. See, the way I figure it, we keep crossing paths for a reason. Don’t you find that strange?”
“It’s a lot stranger than you could possibly know.”
“What does that mean?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you one day. Today is not that day.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek, regarding her. “What am I going to do with you, Sienna Bachman?”
The answer, something good, I hope dashed through her mind, and she pushed it away. She could not very well let herself get involved with the son of Dominic Fontaine. . .and yet, Noah had been right. There did seem to be some cosmic manipulation going on.
He continued to goad her, weighing the imaginary choices in each hand. “Let’s see. . .go back to the hotel . . .go to Jerrin’s for dinner. . .hotel. . . Jerrin. . .”
“Oh all right. Lead and I shall follow.”
“That’s more like it.” He turned and headed for his Element.
The points to notice are that if your characters are distinct individuals, it is often not necessary to have an attribution at all, and instead of telling the reader “he said,” or “she said”, you can insert what playwrights call “Stage business” which merely means what they are doing, or some mannerism, in place of the attribution, or at least, not having to do with the attribution at all. But it does set the tone for what a character is saying.
Watch for upcoming blogs on style and other writing tips.