“If it sounds like writing,” Elmore Leonard once said, “I rewrite it.”
Just as great acting should transport you away as if you were there watching the moment unfold—rather than having you think, “this is great acting”—so too does the best writing allow for full immersion and escape into the story. Most folks don’t sit there thinking: this is a really great sentence. Well, okay, sometimes I do, but I’m nerdy like that, and many times can’t help but think simultaneously from a reader and writer’s perspective.
But as a writer I support a good deal of respect and regard for the reader, and if I find myself lapsing into the typically self-indulgent exercise of trying to write “a really great sentence,” I stop. Let us clarify: of course we all want to write really great sentences but the point is, we must understand what constitutes such, and this consideration must always be rendered with the reader foremost in mind. The writing must be authentic and good grief I realize that can look a gazillion different ways but I tend to believe most times it has a lot to do with understanding your audience and your characters and your story and being as true to them as you can.
I am nearing the finish line in my latest revisions of my YA/Fantasy novel and nary a day goes by without a humbling reminder of this. I find it an often tough balance, seeking the right language and approach which will challenge but not lose young readers, and which will also appeal to adults. So often my language tends toward floridity—to wit—and it never ceases to amaze me how in the moment it had seemed so damn good, but which upon further review is revealed as yet another manifestation of writerly insecurity. See how well I can write? Notice the big words, and riveting description? Bloody hell.
Look, sometimes big words and many times riveting description can be a good thing—just, not for their own sake, or the sake of your ego, or at the expense of the reader’s trust. Do whatever fits. Don’t over-explain. Most times but certainly not all (I’m not about to ask Cormac McCarthy if he could please tamp things down a bit), editing will entail finding a simpler word, or even eliminating a word or sentence or section entirely. Erik Larson, one of my favorite scribes, extols on his Twitter profile his love of “clear and spare prose.” Most writers don’t tend to be math people but there is an equation which helps me re-anchor when I list off-course: SW2C. So what, and who cares? Is the word you are employing—or the sentence or section or plot for that matter—fundamental to advancing the story and characters? We’ve all been cautioned about the perils of adverbs, and in most instances, rightfully so. But it’s more than that, I think. Once more I believe it all circles back to honesty and authenticity and an abiding respect for and faith in your readers.
Hopefully your readers will love your work. And while they may go back through and parse and deconstruct and think, “that was a really great sentence,” the primary reason will be that you were not preoccupied with the notion that they do.
So let us all be thankful for editors and editing and that invaluable opportunity to get over ourselves and in the process let our best work shine through.
Happy writing, happy editing and happy reading to all!