Tuesday, November 9, 2010

If It Is A Duck, Call It A Duck: Being precise in your wording

I often find that writers in "literary fiction" tend to have this problem more than other writers, but it is certainly something we all need to be aware of. There is a tendency for writers to constantly find a way to over-write their stories. In other words, instead of simply telling the writer what it is you want to say, adding in a ton of similes, metaphors and other figurative language to make their points. The problem for the reader is that this language, although it may sound beautiful at times, can become redundant and certainly meaningless.

If we think about the definition of communication, it might be easier to understand. A definition I like to work with is "the getting and the giving of information." I love this because it implies a two-way interaction between the audience and the speaker. We can talk all we want, but if the reader isn't getting it, then communication has failed.

Now, it is easy to blame the reader on this. In other words, claiming that it isn't our fault that they didn't understand what we were talking about. Now, while this might be true, it is also the responsibility and the obligation of the writer to use appropriate audience analysis and communication skills to make an effort to get that point across.

If you spend too much time "flowering" up the language, you run the risk of losing the reader. The end result is that it really doesn't matter how good the story is, the language has gotten in the way.

I do want to stress this issue can also extend to other sub-genres as well and not simply for the writers of literary fiction. Writers of science fiction, fantasty and paranormal, genres that rely on extensive world building, will really face this problem. If the language is too involved, and I don't know what a slythumptian farlyngus is, then I may be lost. I can try to use context clues, but there is certainly no certainty this will work.

The key is, remember the reader. Make your writing accessible. This does not mean to "dumb it down". It simply means to make it clear.

To determine if you writing is in this situation, the best approach is to give it to someone not familiar with your topic. If they don't get it, you have some work ahead of you.

Have fun!



  1. Great advice! I'm almost always pulled out of a story when the writer uses comparisons (like a fill-in-the-blank). I don't use similes in my own writing for this reason. I'd rather read and write the emotions and reactions that go with whatever is happening.

    I'm not sure where this quote comes from, but it fits: It doesn't matter what you say; what matters is what they hear.

  2. Great post, thanks Scott. I know I personally have this problem. Sometimes a well placed simile or metaphor can be really entertaining, but if only a portion of your audience is going to get it, it might be better left out.

  3. Flowery language, unless done really well, is one of my pet peaves. And throwing in a bunch of back story that takes me nowhere. And writing a bunch of words for the sake of word count.

    Yep, I'm catching up on your November posts, can you tell?

    Thank you, Scott!

    ~that rebel, Olivia