In Quest of an Elegant Writing Style
© Laraine Anne Barker
What makes one writer's style "elegant" and another's merely functional (Philip Pullman's description of Rowling's writing style) or just plain dull? (Look for Warriors of Alavna by N M Browne for a good example of dull writing.)
I think it's a combination of many things, but basically it all comes down to something few of us enjoy: sheer hard work. Following are my thoughts on the subject:
1. Always use exactly the right word rather than an approximation.
2. Use only as many words as are needed to tell your story.
3. Avoid cliches, except when a cliche is exactly what you need.
4. Don't use colloquialisms, except in dialogue (where appropriate). For example, the word "gotten" (so often used by Americans) is extremely inelegant, especially in narrative. I'm personally not fond of "got" either and use it only when I have no choice.
5. Avoid unnecessarily long words when a short one will do.
6. Vary the length of your sentences. If you write for the very young, this might not be possible, but even middle-grade readers should be able handle a sentence that covers more than strictly one idea. Blocks of sentences of similar length create a choppy effect.
7. Use strong words rather than weak. (See my list on http://lbarker.orcon.net.nz/redundancies.html.) As well as avoiding weak words, instead of writing that your character ran, how about something more evocative? For instance, if you write that he pelted down the path, your readers will be able to hear the thud of his footsteps. The same goes for when someone is moving slowly. They could amble, wander, saunter, stroll, even creep or stalk if the situation was appropriate. Other ways of walking could be tramp, stomp, hike, march, stride.
8. Avoid strings of monosyllabic words that create a bumpy effect. ("We set off down the track to the lake").
9. Don't use more than two sentences in a row that start with the same word. Readers DO notice--if only subconsciously.
10. Avoid too many consecutive paragraphs starting with the same word. It looks unattractive on the page, for a start.
11. Vary the length of paragraphs. If writing for middle-grade readers and younger, also keep paragraphs reasonably short. Paragraphs that cover a whole page, or even half a page, can be daunting.
12. Don't fall into the trap of using alternatives to "said", unless the word is a legitimate substitute--shouted, whispered, yelled, for instance--and not a noise, such as grunt, sigh. For middle-grade readers and above, some action pointing to the speaker can be an effective substitute, as long as it isn't there only to avoid using said.
13. Follow the rules of good grammar--at least MOST of the time.
14. Break the rules of strictly good grammar (for instance, by using an incomplete sentence, or a sentence starting with a conjunction, such as "and" or "but") to create the right effect. The examples below are all from The Stones Are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean:
a. Example of incomplete sentence use:
"... the exquisite smoothness of the pebble in his hand made him look at it afresh--at its mottled whiteness. One silent minim. An egg."
b. Examples of starting a sentence with a conjunction, for effect:
"How was this raiding of nests any better than Sweeney plucking songbirds out of the air and prising open their chests? And Sweeney had cause."
He mistook the glint for the shine of animal eyes watching him. But it was simply the Faeries' Golconda, their treasure hoard."
In the second example, by using a full stop instead of a comma, McCaughrean places emphasis on the fact that the glint was only the Faeries' Golconda. Phelim's discovery would be nowhere near as effective if the two sentences were joined.
15. Don't end a sentence with a preposition if at all possible. However, if any rewrite you try makes the sentence clumsy or pompous, don't worry too much about it; just return to your original sentence. Whatever pedantic so-called experts on creative writing may say, pompous or clumsy-sounding narrative just to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition is far from acceptable. Winston Churchill, when criticised for this fault in a document, is reported to have demonstrated the point by replying, "It is an accusation up with which I will not put." Or something similar.
16. Avoid run-on sentences. For instance, "My mum's not all that bad, she's just stricter than most mothers" would work better with a semi-colon instead of a comma. Sometimes a full stop is more appropriate.
17. Study the work of writers who are noted for their elegant style.
Obviously there's a lot more to elegant prose than the above. I'll be adding more suggestions to this list as they occur to me. The updates will be available at http://lbarker.orcon.net.nz/elegant.html.
© L A Barker Enterprises
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Laraine Anne Barker writes fantasy for young people. Visit her web site at http://lbarker.orcon.net.nz Fantasy for Children & Young Adults for FREE stories and novel excerpts. Sign up for the NOVELLA OF THE MONTH CLUB, absolutely FREE!
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