Bad writing habitsBasics of writing

Is your writing style right?

From Rick:

My wife came up with this post idea. I was telling her about a particular issue I had encountered in a piece I was reviewing, and she suggested the topic.

What do I mean by the right writing style? Let’s start with examples of what prompted this post. It had to do with dialogue tags:

“Send in my chief steward,” said the king.

“Miss Higgins, have security come to my office immediately,” said the director.

What’s wrong with these? Technically nothing, except that in modern writing the noun or pronoun is generally placed first in dialogue tags:

“Send in my chief steward,” the king said.

“Miss Higgins, have security come to my office immediately,” the director said.

Most of you would agree that writing the following wound sound archaic: “Send in my chief steward,” said he.

We do see “said he” and ‘said I” in older works or in stories set in earlier times because writing the tags this way adds a certain historical flavor. I do see some authors from the UK writing the verb first, but most modern American writers don’t—unless they’re new writers who don’t know the current conventions.

Now consider the following passage:

“We’re going to the movies,” said Jack. “Wanna come with?”
“I have a test to study for,” said I.

The first line would be passable in some cases, but the modern “wanna come with?” expression makes it feel a bit off, and the second line clearly is awkward in this instance.

If we were writing a story set a century or two ago with appropriate lines and word choices, then these constructions might better fit the mood and time:

“We are going to the theater,” said Jack. “You are welcome to accompany us.”

“Alas, I have a prior engagement,” said I.

What compounds the problem of placing the verb first in modern writing is I’ve seen cases where the author isn’t consistent with it. Sometimes he’ll use “Jack said” and at other times “said Jack” with no clear reason for the switch.

This issue of dialogue tags represents only one case of getting the writing style right. Some new writers don’t match the writing to the characters. This means not only making the dialogue fit the character (street kids generally don’t speak like college professors and vice versa), but also making sure that your word choices and descriptions and exposition fit the POV character.

A street kid is not going to walk into a fancy home and be thinking about the Doric columns, Louis XIV furniture, Seurat paintings displayed there or the Tiffany chandelier that was hanging in the foyer where he entered. He probably won’t even know it’s called foyer. On the other hand, maybe he does know these things because he’s not the street kid everyone thinks he is.

If the character is sitting in her bed reading a novel while her husband is out late, is she going to be thinking that she’s sitting on a gel-foam mattress, leaning against a carved mahogany headboard that her grandfather made and looking across the room at her Danish modern dresser and think how much she’s enjoying reading her Nora Roberts romance novel? Probably not. Yet I’ve seen this sort of thing written.

Why do these problems arise? Most of the time, it due to the writer writing from his or her personal perspective instead of from the perspective of the character. The lady in bed, if she were showing off the bedroom to someone, might well say the carved mahogany headboard was made by her grandfather, but if someone on the phone (a lover?) asked her what she was doing, would she dole out such descriptive details? I highly doubt it. A good rule to follow is if a person in real life wouldn’t say or think about such things, they your novel character shouldn’t either.

Of course, there can be exceptions, but they must arise from motivation in the story. If the woman is reading an erotic romance novel while waiting for her husband’s return so they can act out what she’s reading, then she might also describe what she’s wearing, how the lights are dimmed, how bed feels too big for one person…

Or how about this? A woman is in a nightclub and she sees this handsome man approaching. Consider these examples:

(1) His chocolate-brown eyes were clearly fixated on her hourglass figure in a teal body-hugging dress with hoop earrings and black patent leather high heels.

It’s okay to mention his eyes, but not what she’s wearing because, for one thing, she’s focused on him, not on how she’s dressed—or at least not in that much detail. Her clothing is clearly the writer’s intrusion, born of the belief it’s necessary to describe the character. If anything, the character being described should be the man because he’s what she’s looking at.

On the other hand, what if she sees him (and everyone else in the nightclub) sharply dressed and realizes she’s come here in slovenly or inappropriate attire?

(2) His chocolate-brown eyes were clearly fixated on her. But was it because he liked the person he saw or because he was wearing an obviously expensive three-piece suit while she was clad in jeans and a knit sweater?

These examples reinforce what I was talking about in the two recent posts on description.



In those I talked about how to add descriptive details without interrupting your story and without making the description intrusive. Description is one of the narrative elements of fiction, so we always need some of it. Regardless of whether the story takes place in an elaborate and complex setting or deals with disembodied voices in empty space, the writer still has to convey that information to the reader.

Properly done descriptions push the story along because they illuminate the characters and their frame of mind. My nightclub examples above demonstrate ways to insert description without stopping the story. They also illustrate how to match your writing style with the story. If the two characters in the nightclub are fashion conscious, it might also be appropriate to drop in some designer names, such as if she recognizes the maker of the suit he’s wearing. But if she’s sartorially ignorant and doesn’t know Armani from J.C. Penney, then having her mention his Armani suit would be inconsistent with her character.

Never forget that it’s your characters, not you, who must drive the story. Remain true to the knowledge you’ve given to your characters and don’t insert information they would not know, regardless of what you personally know. Don’t fall so in love with your own writing that you lose sight of how your characters view the world and what words they use to describe it.

Your goal as a writer is to tell a good story. Good writing craft will do far more to impress your readers than will your trying to show off the breadth of your knowledge. While your characters’ dialogue is often the most obvious aspect of their personalities, their perceptions, actions, and behaviors are equally important aspects of who they are.


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