By Jenna Glatzer
You know how, when you’re watching a speaker, you can tell if he or she isnervous? There are those tell-tale signs: trembling hands and voice, lack of eyecontact, perspiration, twitches, lots of "ummms," and a myriad ofother idiosyncratic gestures and signs that show he or she is not fully at easein front of an audience.
Did you know that I can spot those same tell-tale signs in your writing?
If you’re not completely confident in your skills as a writer, and in whatyou’ve written in particular, there are warning signs that can tip off aneditor or reader. I find them in query letters all the time, and, to a lesserextent, in articles and stories themselves.
The first tip-off? Stilted language.
Stilted language is formal and proper. It employs big words when small oneswould suffice just fine. It "sounds" canned and over-prepared.
Example: "Marjorie was required to submit to a physician’s examinationprior to the interview in which she would be considered for the position."
Doesn’t it sound like the writer is working too hard to impress here? Likeshe’s trying to SOUND like a journalist? "Real writers" don’t haveto use big words and serious language to effectively get their point across. Infact, the more direct and simple the language, the better.
"Marjorie had to go for a doctor’s exam before the company wouldconsider her for the job."
Is it "dumbing down" your language? No. It’s cutting through thethicket and allowing the words to flow as naturally as they would in your speech—justwith the benefit of editing. It’s being purposely as understandable aspossible, so that if someone was skimming your query/article quickly, he wouldstill get the meaning, without tripping over S.A.T. words or unfamiliarphrasing.
Many professional writers (myself included) believe in writing first draftsquickly, so as not to give our brains enough time to censor, doubt, and questioneach word as it flows through us and onto the paper. When I write, whether it’san article, story, or just about anything else, I pretend I’m talking to afriend. I want my friend to hear about this interesting thing I learned. So, Itell him in the same manner I’d tell him if he were sitting next to me in myliving room. I don’t need to impress him (or confuse him!) by "spicingup" my writing with words like "proceed" and "consume"when the words "go" and "eat" would have worked just fine.
Stilted language is a sign that the writer is not confident that her OWNwords—the words she would really use—are good enough. It’s puffing up thewriting to suit an editor. But think about this: the more formal and convolutedthe language, the harder the editor will have to think just to get through thepiece. Too much thinking equals rejection, unless you’re writing for anacademic or very intellectual market. Editors want clarity. They don’t want tohave to reread sentences to get the meaning of your words. Once the eyes glazeover, you’re in trouble.
Another giveaway: namby-pamby qualifiers that shift the responsibility forthe statements away from the author. Example: "It seemed to onlookers thatMayor Ross might possibly have been suffering from exhaustion."
Were you one of the onlookers? Was it pretty obvious that the guy was fallingasleep at the podium? Then don’t shift the observation into a passive voice.Be confident in your own powers of observation and reasoning. "Mayor Rossseemed exhausted."
The same goes for overuse of "experts" and studies when none areneeded. We all know that you’re supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night,right? Then why do people insist on writing, "According to doctors, eighthours of sleep per night is optimal"? You don’t need the doctor to saythat for you. If you know it to be true, you can skip the "according todoctors" and get straight to your point, without pulling out of your ownvoice.
Another example: "usually," "probably," "mostlikely," "often," etc. Watch for these words in your writing.There are times when they’ll be necessary—and, then again, there are plentyof times when you can omit them.
I once had a psychology professor who prefaced every statement she made withthe words "basically," "usually," or "typically."It undermined what she was saying, because it felt like she was unsure ofherself. When you write these words, it translates to uncertainty—did MaryBeth go to church on Sundays, or did she "typically" go to church onSundays? If she skipped once or twice a year, she went. You don’t need aqualifier. If she skipped every other week, then you can add a qualifier.
Be confident in what you are writing. Every time you shift awayresponsibility for your words by attributing them to someone else, or bywatering them down with adverbs, you give the reader leeway to question whetheror not you really know what you’re talking about.
Another tip-off: fear of making a point.
Similar to the problem with too many qualifiers, pulling out of your articletoo soon shows a lack of confidence in your message. Let’s say you wrote anentire article about how a certain kind of duck is going extinct. You talkedabout all the reasons why it’s happening, and you explained what people can doto help. Then you end it with a lame conclusion like "Further studies areneeded" or "Experts will continue to examine the causes…" blah,blah. Again, if you know that what you’ve just said is true, you don’t needto end off with anything that detracts from your conclusion. Sure, furtherstudies may be conducted, but does that take anything away from the evidence you’vejust reported? Let your point come through loud and clear. Make the decision totake a risk and be accountable for your words.
You don’t need to tie it all up neatly with a moral, a la Aesop’s Fables("And that’s why we must all stop throwing plastic in the garbage").Just let the strength of your entire article carry the message—let yourreaders come to the conclusions to which you’ve directed them, and don’t letthem second-guess those conclusions by giving a wishy-washy ending.
Be bold. Be confident. And let your very best writing shine through.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com
),where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to newwriters! She is also the author of OUTWITTING WRITER'S BLOCK AND OTHERPROBLEMS OF THE PEN and other books for writers, which you can read about at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm
if you want to make her day.