It’s the middle of the night. The Storyfixer can’t sleep. Because I absolutely have to tell you this. Now. If I don’t, I’ll wake up and not remember this killer title.
And, if it weren’t the middle of the night, I’d never refer to myself in the third person, I swear.
Nummero uno rookie/beginning/amateur writing mistake: overwriting. Trying to trick up your sentences. Going for contrived eloquence. Attempting to liberate your inner poet. Appearing to imitate someone famous who writes that way. Or, generally stinking up the place with strings of words that detract instead of enhance.
One writer’s eloquence is another editor’s nightmare. It’ll get your work rejected faster than a deus ex machina in the final act.
It’s called writing voice, and it’s one of the Six Core Competences. While writing voice is actually the subject of a huge percentage of the agenda at writing conferences and certainly in academia, it’s actually the least critical of all the Six Core Competencies when it comes to actually publishing your work. It can too easily become too much of a good thing, in which case it becomes a fatal thing for your manuscript. In fact, when it comes to the criteria for writing voice in context to the Six Core Competencies model, the most important is that voice doesn’t become an issue in either direction – it should neither too strong or too weak.
It’s like a singer, even one with great pipes, messing up a song with too many melodic gymnastics. Think Maria Carey tying to trick up the national anthem. Great voice, but thumbs down.
Writing voice — the stylistic feel and attitude of the written narrative — is like air: if you can smell it, something is cooking, and it may not be appetizing. In fact, something may be rotten. Attempting to imbue your writing with noticeable narrative style is risky, because you’re hoping and assuming that whoever is reading your work will be attacted to that particular style. The safest bet (one placed by a bevy of bestselling writers that includes, in said bevy, Dan Brown and John Grisham and even James Patterson, and a bunch of other authors who are too often and unfairly accused of not being “all that good” because their writing bears no stylistic scent) is to write cleanly and crisply. To write simply. Sort of like a breath of fresh air, the hallmark of which is that it doesn’t smell like anything at all. It’s just, well, pleasant. It flows. It goes down easy.
The personality and voice of your writing should be natural, not something remotely contrived. It can take years to find your natural writing voice, and when you do you’ll never fear the color purple — as in, purple prose — again. Because only when you are writing naturally, without forcing it and without abusing adjectives (in his 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advises writers to remove every single adjective from your manuscript) will the scent of your narrative be as subtle and functional as it needs to be to attract a buyer.
When it comes to writing style, just be yourself. Less is more. And if you aren’t sure who you are, relax, it’ll come to you. Just keep trying things, checking in with how it works, and listening to the feedback.
Many of us become writers in the first place because we have been told for years that we have a way with words. Just make sure that the words don’t have a way with you and your career.
Because in New York, novels don’t sell because of writing voice. They get rejected because of writing voice. What sells are great stories, told well. “Well,” in that context, being a balanced mastery of the Six Core Competencies, which includes a writing voice that smells like money.
That said, the Storyfixer is going back to bed.