An American Editor

February 15, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Lazy Writing, Part 1 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

Many of us write lazily when composing our letters, reports, and books. It’s easier to turn ideas into words when we’re relaxed and nothing inhibits the flow. Creative writing, especially, benefits from the author “letting ’er rip.” That liquid, unstriving state of mind best releases the emotions and imagery needed for a story, but to bring that story to fulfillment through publishing requires being balanced by a disciplined state of mind to finish the job.

Laziness in writing, therefore, has both a positive and negative aspect.

The positive aspect of laziness is a glowing, happy state, such as what accompanies a Sunday afternoon with no obligations, when one can kick back and enjoy a rare opportunity to read, walk, talk, travel, party, eat — whatever brings satisfaction, allowing one to be at ease. In positive laziness, thoughts can flow in an absence of tension. As it pertains to writing, a certain amount of psychic laziness brings inspiration, productivity, and joy.

The negative aspect of laziness is unwillingness to do what has to be done. There might be good reasons for it in someone’s personal situation, but laziness and the oft-resultant procrastination rarely combine into a happy outcome when writing a book that the author desires to publish.

Negative laziness in writing translates into “not enough thought or revision,” resulting in a work that’s put out into the world unpolished. In most cases, a lazily written book will not be acquired by an agent or editor (in traditional publishing). If a lazy novel is self-published, readers won’t buy it or finish it or recommend it to their friends. Worse, they will give it bad reviews.

It’s normal for an author to be unable to self-revise and eliminate the symptoms of negative lazy writing. Revising and polishing one’s work can be like looking in a mirror: You know what you’re going to see, and that image of yourself is imprinted in your mind, making it hard to see anything else. A similar self-blindness occurs in reading one’s own writing. It’s tremendously hard to view it through someone else’s eyes — which is why authors use beta readers and hire editors.

This essay, then, is aimed more at editors than writers, although both can benefit from knowing what symptoms to watch for.

Distinctions in laziness

In the novels I edit, positive laziness shows itself in zesty, imaginative plots and colorful characters, while negative laziness shows itself in flat characters and dull, redundant, and/or unclear prose.

This negative quality I dub “lazy prose” because it gives the impression of incompleteness, as if the sentences were written without planning or examination. That usually occurs in the first or second draft, when the author is still mapping out the story and perhaps struggling to flesh it out. At that point, there’s no negative laziness involved. But if no effort follows to refine the text, then I mentally flag the book as lazy.

There’s also a version of lazy prose that reflects egotism. Sometimes authors believe that all they have to do is type out their thoughts, and every reader will share their vision and understand all their characters’ motivations, actions, and emotions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the information a reader needs to enjoy this sharing and understanding isn’t in the manuscript.

Here are some examples of how lazy prose leaves a book unpolished.

Vague adjectives

The most common lazy word I see is large. I’m tempted to call that word the universal adjective because it crops up so often!

For instance: A large man enters a large building through a large door into a large room with a large fireplace. Or, a large army is led by a large man on a large horse wielding a large sword.

Okay, I exaggerate: I’ve never seen large used more than twice in one sentence, but I have seen it used 10 times in one chapter and several dozen times in one novel. It’s a perfectly good adjective, but when it becomes the author’s pet descriptor throughout a story, and I’m trying to form mental images as I follow the characters through their adventures, then the word’s inadequacy becomes apparent.

In the author’s mind, a large man might be a tall one, a fat one, or a big hairy one. In the reader’s mind, without any other information, it’s hard to visualize the person if all we’re given is large. Let’s say the author introduces a character as a menace to the protagonist, such as when a sleuth is confronted by an enforcer for the criminal he’s tracking down. Just saying the enforcer is large draws no picture, and the threat intended by this person’s appearance fails to impress.

Expanding the description to draw a more-precise picture requires adding words (e.g., built like a bull with no neck), which might be problematic in action stories or scenes where spareness keeps the pace moving. In such cases, a single adjective must serve. Just upticking large to beefy improves the image. A thesaurus adds options: stout, heavy, thickset, stocky, chunky, brawny, husky, burly, strapping, hulking, elephantine, herculean, humongous — at least 10 others.

Usually a brief elaboration, such as an enforcer built like a bull, or a door twice as tall as a man, will do the job. It can be argued that twice as tall as a man is just as vague as large, because man isn’t defined; however, most people have an idea of the general size of adult male humans, so describing something as twice that size has more meaning than just large.

One of my clients, in response to my requests to be more specific when he repeatedly used large, said he wanted to leave the reader free to visualize the person/place/thing in their own way. That’s a fair position, and in many genres an appropriate style. I share this author’s (and many others’) dislike of too much description and will always encourage lean prose over verbose prose. At the same time, I believe it’s possible to omit too much information and leave readers struggling to follow the story or understand the characters.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

I’ll second that, and add that one precise adjective can draw a sharper, more-evocative picture than a vague one like large.

Editor’s note: Part 2 will be posted on March 15.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

2 Comments

  1. The offending word I see all the time is “interesting.” Animal, vegetable, mineral, words, ideas … everything is interesting.

    Like

    Comment by Maggi Kirkbride — February 16, 2019 @ 12:21 am

  2. This is excellent. When I notice overuse of a vague adjective (“large” does come to mind) or an -ly adverb such as “gently”—or any other word, really, that triggers my “I’ve seen this too often” alarm—I do a word search to make note of exactly how many times that word appears in the MS. Sometimes I have a list of almost a dozen words for the author with a note along the lines of “I recommend removing at least 3/4 of these throughout.”

    It’s always my argument for the extra set of eyes on a doc. We don’t see our own errors.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

    Like

    Comment by Lynda Dietz — February 17, 2019 @ 7:04 pm


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