Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Time to blog about something other than my dogs.

Maya Reynolds did a wonderful post that included an excerpt on writing by John D. MacDonald. These 2 paragraphs are my favorite:

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt. You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace or character.

I love Jason Evan’s short fiction contests because they allow quick tastes of many different genres and writing styles. My favorite this time was easily Just Another Monday Morning in Hell by Angelique H. Caffrey. It was easy to read and funny – a true short story. I didn’t need a dictionary to understand any of the words and excessive use of a thesaurus wasn’t evident. The writing was crisp and to the point and it all made sense.

Some of the entries didn’t make sense to me. Perhaps if the authors had another 250 or more words to provide additional details it would have helped, but that would have defeated the purpose of the 250 word limit.

Some of the writing was so flowery and long worded it made me wonder if there was any story at all or if the author was just trying to impress us with their vocabulary.

What I liked were the stories that were like Angelique’s – easy to read, easy to understand and interesting. It didn’t matter which genre they represented. What mattered was the writing. Some of them were very well thought out and Jason’s picks reflected this.

Part of this was inspired by Bernita’s post about language. She recommended reading your writing aloud and since I’ve always done this, I thought it was a brilliant suggestion. If you read aloud and it doesn’t make sense or sound like something someone would actually say, you may need to do some editing – or just use my failsafe method – highlight, delete and start again.

Lottery, Look Me in the Eye, Bad Girl, Evermore – all good examples of interesting, easy to read, well paced books in totally different genres. None of them required excessive adjectives of multiple syllables to make them good. In fact, Lottery was one of the simplest yet most moving novels I’ve read in a long time.

So, the point is if people are reading your works with contempt for the long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace or character, perhaps you should just simplify.

What have you read lately that’s simple yet effective?


Mary Witzl said...

I've just visited Maya Reynolds' site, and that was indeed a good post.

Although I've read several good books recently, the one that sprang to mind reading your post is Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall, an MG book. Good YA and MG books offer many examples of simple but effective writing.

And you're right about reading things out loud: if they don't trip off your tongue well, they're likely to be clunky writing. I've got to watch out for that Germanic structure, though. I absolutely love it.

Merry Jelinek said...

Reading out loud is a great way to edit, I use a tape recorder, that way I can put it away for a while and listen to it later when the words aren't so infused in my brain... sometimes you're just too close to a work to see it - I think this works especially well with dialect.

And I have to say, I like both types of writing. In essay and article I tend to like a more intellectual writing style - not so far that I'd have to pull out a dictionary, but then I don't mind expanding my vocabulary either. With fiction I like a lot of different voices - Like you, I thought Lottery was one of the most poignant books I'd read in a long time - the words were simple but the themes were impressive.

Church Lady said...

I just finished Cormac Mcarthy's "No Country for Old Men."

Oh, I love his style!

I agree. Reading aloud is a good way to edit.

The Anti-Wife said...

Step away from the Germanic structure! YA and MG books are good examples.

Never thought of using a tape recorder. Just hearing my own voice might prejudice me.

The Anti-Wife said...

That's one on my to buy list. One of hundreds. Now I just need the time to read them.

Ello said...

Definitely Lottery! Awesome to read and no complicated language.

Cormac's The road also was like that and just an excellent book!

ORION said...

Aw you guys are the best!
Thanks yeah!
I am always attracted to clarity in writing.

John Elder Robison said...

Think of simplification this way:

Older people understand big words.

Both Older people and Young people understand little words.

Old people are dying off every day.

The stock of Younger people is constantly being replenished.

Knowing those things, which group would a writer with an eye on commercial success and career longevity speak to?

And as an aside, I've been gone for a few weeks, since that Church Lady contest but your book went out in a plain brown envelope. I don't know what else you get in plain brown envelopes out there, but make sure this envelope gets saved. It's a first printing.

The Anti-Wife said...

Well said. I often wonder who authors are writing for - readers or themselves.

I'm looking forward to receiving my autographed copy. My friends who've read your book also really liked it.

The Quoibler said...


I just saw this post -- thank you so much for your sweet words! I enjoyed writing that piece and was surprised by how many positive responses I got. Maybe we're all ready for Satan to be a main character in a short story or novel... ha!