Lazy Writing and How to Avoid It

Someone is asleep at the wheel...or at his laptop. Let's not disturb him. Shhhhh.

I’ve been teaching writing for almost 14 years and have been writing fiction for 25.  It has been my experience that anyone can write well if given the proper tools and education.  Usually someone tip-toes into my classroom with their short story or poem or random work of fiction under their arm.  They hold it out with tremulous hands and ask politely if I will edit their work for them.  I usually ask them to speak up. They are usually terrified of me because they do not know how to accept honest criticism that is meant to help.  Acquaintances tell us what we want to hear while real friends tell us what we need to hear.  Unless it is a student or a very, very good friend I will ask for payment.  What I find sometimes exhibits the following marks of laziness:

1.  Too Many Quantifiers – I mean, really.  He is really big or really tall or very old or too big or very little or small or fat or thin.  The English language is overflowing with adjectives and adverbs to couple perfectly with every descriptive need.  I am well acquainted with a priceless companion named thesaurus.  Every writer should have this valuable tool permanently grafted to their arm.  Writers claim to be painters of words but many of them have nothing to work with but a box of 8 crayons.

2.  Show, Don’t Tell – I wrote a blog a few days ago about this subject.  Remove “to be” verbs from your text.  Another method is to find every instance of the words “since”, “as if” and “seemed” and find a better way to phrase the sentences.  The point is that writers should show readers a word picture of settings, characters, emotions, and actions rather than telling readers and assuming they can imagine things for themselves.

3.  Read It Backwards – When entering the editing stage of writing a novel, I go to each chapter and edit by reading the last sentence of the chapter by itself to see if my grammar is sound.  I then read the sentence before that one and judge it’s grammar.  This tedious process forces me to examine all of my errors.  It has caused me to focus on individual sentences to look for bad syntax and lazy description.  When we edit forward (like most people) we often miss our errors because our brains want to force all sentences into one complete thought (as well they should) but the casual and definitely the careful reader will pick up on your grammar errors and find them off-putting.  With dialogue I read each sentence spoken by each character to ensure that the voice does not change.

4.  Fried Shoes – I once had a brilliant writing professor, Dr. Bill Mitchell, who would often speak of the beat poets who felt that their poetry did not have to mean anything at all but that it was an expression of their psyche.  He said that when you asked them what their poem meant, they would say “It means fried shoes, man.  Fried shoes.”  On behalf of Dr. Mitchell, myself, and nearly every literary agent and publishing editor I’ve ever spoken to: that’s not good enough!  Your story must mean something to your reader or it is so much wasted time for everyone.  It must have some type of universal theme upon which readers can graft an interest.  I don’t know if you’ve read Kerouac, but his stories had meaning even if the grammar was bad, the sentences were broken and the dialogue was set off with dashes.  His stories are as deep as the Mariana Trench. They grab your heart in an angry fist and never let go.

5. Time is the Little Death – Writers of longer texts sometimes don’t know what to do with their characters between scenes.  Often, two mistakes are made: (1)  Passage of time is not explained and suddenly the characters are at their next destination and the reader is left in the lurch and (2) passage of time is written about where pretty much nothing happens and readers read the most boring 1-4 chapters they have ever had the displeasure of scrolling through.  Have you ever been reading a novel and want to skip ahead to the good parts?  This is a writer guilty of  laziness.  This is problem combatted with careful planning, hard work that some writers are not willing to sweat about and it is their fatal flaw.  An outline is a very good idea especially for long works.  Know where the characters are going ahead of time and you won’t have to bore the readers while you figure it out for three chapters.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

12 thoughts on “Lazy Writing and How to Avoid It

  1. Pingback: The Lazy Gene
  2. I run stuff through a web product called AutoCrit to cover parts of one and three. It catches all sorts of things that normal eyes don’t, including overused words and repeated words and phrases. I used to do variations on the backwards reading thing, and it made me want to take up chainsaw juggling as an alternative to writing. Raw grammatical issues I don’t have as much problem with–I had a great English teacher thirty-five years ago who beat them out of me. 🙂

    Passage of time markers are tricky, agreed, even all the way down as individual phrases in sentences. Describing some of the actions characters engage in during a conversation (often in lieu of dialog tags) helps to prevent “talking heads” syndrome, but get too detailed and every paragraph becomes the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I use a three fold test: does the action assist with the plot? Does it tell the reader something about the character? Will I slit my wrists if I write another “he said” on this page?

    The other thing I highly recommend: finding a writing group, real or virtual. Not only will they help spot mechanical glitches, they’ll also let you know if your work has larger issues. Some shopping around may be necessary to find a suitable one, but I know my work has blossomed since I found mine (Writers under the Arch).

  3. I love the picture… It made me laugh 🙂
    I agree with what you wrote, especially the thesaurus part. Many of my past English teachers have told me that writers should never use a thesaurus, but I think that as long as you know not to make your writing sound obnoxiously wordy, thesauruses can definitely improve your quality of work. Plus, if you use a thesaurus enough, eventually you’ll end up memorizing quite a few of the synonyms for the words you look up most.

    1. @thewritingaficionado, It’s basically a mixed bag with thesauruses. In the hands of a good writer, they’re useful tools. In the hands of a bad writer it’s a crutch that the writer is using to make themselves sound smarter by using rare words that nobody knows the meaning of.

      1. I’ll be honest, for me it’s a memory crutch. I regularly hit blank walls where I can’t remember the synonym that I want to use. My online thesaurus reminds me. I avoid using words that weren’t already part of my vocabulary, as it just sounds fraudulent. I think my problem is partly natural mental decay, partly a consequence of living in an ‘instant-answer’, ‘Google-Wikipedia’ world where my memory isn’t getting enough exercise.

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