A nudge is as good as a wink, they say. *Nudge, nudge, wink, wink* Sadly, I have a fondness for clichés, so avoiding them is an uphill battle for me. But – and here’s another cliché – too much of a good thing spoils the broth, or something like that. Today’s guest, Harrison Demchick, explains why shortcuts like clichés are not a writer’s friend.
Recently I found myself editing a novel in which the characters wouldn’t stop winking.
They winked when they made jokes. They winked when they provided compliments. They winked in conjunction with innuendo. They winked several times in quick succession to multiple characters. They winked, in short, a lot.
In the grand scheme of editing, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Every writer has their go-to tendencies. One of my favorite past clients had characters rolling their eyes every other page. I myself overdo the quiet act of looking. And one of the helpful things an editor like me can do is point out those tendencies writers can’t see in themselves.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that there was something more going on here than tendency. It wasn’t just the fact of people in real life not winking anywhere near so often. There was a broader issue winking represented, and it’s one a lot of writers face.
It’s called shorthand.
What’s the cardinal guideline of writing? We all know it: Show, don’t tell.
There’s not a developmental editor in the world who hasn’t preached this at one point or another, and with good reason: A picture is worth a thousand words, even in writing. But oftentimes writers, wanting very much to show, find themselves relying on very easy, universally accepted actions to get their points across.
Winking suggests playfulness. It suggests camaraderie. It suggests wit. It’s an easily accessible shorthand for all kinds of qualities a writer may want to depict in their characters—and it’s visual, too, so readers can see the characters as playful, friendly, and witty right there on the page. That’s got to be a literary win, right?
The trouble is it’s too easy. We’ve seen it a million times. The reason the wink comes to mind so immediately for these qualities is because many, many other writers before have used it to convey the same thing. While that makes the wink universal, it also makes it obvious—which reveals the connection between shorthand and another frequent writing problem with which you may be a bit more familiar.
Can a simple action like winking really be a cliché? Well, not exactly, but cliché and shorthand emerge from basically the same place. When writing a story, using a cliché is an easy thing to do, because expressions like “a chill ran down my spine” and “I was happy as a clam” are familiar and generally understood. You don’t have to think especially hard to retrieve them because they’re part of the culture. And they express pretty much exactly what you want to express—just not in your own words.
That’s the problem. Clichés are unoriginal—we all know that. Easy, it turns out, lives right across the street from lazy. When you utilize clichés and tropes and stereotypes instead of crafting your own language and characters, you’re not really creating original work, and that’s demonstrative of lazy writing.
Winking isn’t a cliché, exactly, but it is obvious and overly familiar in the same way as a cliché, appearing in your manuscript instead of the dialogue and characterization you would otherwise use to convey such playfulness, or such wit, or such camaraderie. This doesn’t mean that winking as an action should be removed from all of English literature, or even from your entire manuscript, but if you find such a gesture appearing over and over again in your writing, it’s probably appearing to prevent you from having to build more complexity into your story and characters.
So how do we avoid shorthand? How do we ensure that we’re taking the time to develop our own story in our own words?
Sometimes it starts with slowing down. A lot of writers rush through their first draft—a perfectly valid strategy, but one that lends itself to shorthand. When you’re writing a scene, consider at the start what you mean to convey with that scene—not only in terms of action, but also in terms of characterization. If, for example, your intent is to show friendship, you can reveal this through witty repartee. You can do so with gestures particular to the characters, like a punch on the shoulder or secret handshake or any number of other things. Even better, you can let the action of the scene reveal friendship by virtue of the decisions your characters make.
The important thing is that you do it your way—a way that reflects your voice and your intent for these particular individuals. Maybe winking genuinely does reflect that, but you can’t let it be the entirety of your characterization, which is exactly what you do when you rely on it too consistently.
Feedback and Revision
Like I said at the start, we all have tendencies in our writing in one form or another. It’s not something we can always see. But when it’s pointed out, it’s important to realize that these tendencies often have causes that go beyond simply a personal liking for particular words and expressions. Part of the process of revising is figuring out the root cause of the issues you face and addressing that.
So if you tend toward winking, or eye-rolling, or some phrasing you can’t stop using, don’t just find new synonyms or equivalent gestures. Consider why you keep using such shorthand and work to devote more effort to conveying your world in your own personal voice.
What tendency shows up in your writing? And what do you do to avoid it?
Best-selling author Brenda Novak joins us on Friday to discuss longevity in romance.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally.
Check out the brand new, revamped Writer’s Ally website at http://thewritersally.com!
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