Sometimes writing less is more.
It is important to try to avoid ‘overwriting’. Especially in descriptive passages, it is sometimes the case that the writer goes beyond what is poetic and evocative and writes too much, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination and/or becoming over-sentimental, maudlin or cloying.
Using figurative language well is a skill. Just including some will not work as well as being very selective, and also ruthless in analysing what you have written.
We have all heard the advice, ‘never mix your metaphors’:
If a metaphor is appropriate and it works then that is sufficient.
- Adding another one, or over explaining will reduce its effectiveness.
- The usefulness comes from an image being created instantly, which does not distract from the action of the story and may be virtually subconscious.
- It works because we have memories and existing images to attach it to and several will distract rather than add to the impact sending the mind skittering around after the best image when the first one has already done the job.
Similes also must be appropriate and helpful.
- They must not be merely dressing to make the writer look poetic or ‘literary’.
- You rarely need both metaphors and similes, to make the same point, in prose.
- Choose the best one. Make it work and stop, giving it time and space to work. Do not clutter it up.
Alliteration and onomatopoeia only work well when they are subtle.
- They should not be too obvious or forced or they will lose impact.
- The narrative should be seamless and flow naturally
- Unless you are analysing the text, you should only be aware that the piece is atmospheric and evocative not of the technicalities of why that is so.
Vocabulary should be varied and interesting.
- Simple mistakes like using the same word twice or more too close together, or even in the same sentence should be edited out in the course of the redrafting, correcting, honing and editing process.
- This applies particularly to adjectives, and perhaps even more to adverbs which should always be used sparingly in good prose.
- Watch out for contradictions in the language. English is fraught with traps, eg.”
‘ Jane’s come up to see you. Get up and come down,’ she shouted up to the children.”
“’It’s time to step back and move forward,’ advised Mark.”
The uses of up/down and back/forward in these contexts are not technically incorrect but they are unattractive and may be distracting, spoiling the smooth flow of the text.
- Do not dumb down. Use correct and intelligent vocabulary but do not try to impress by using obscure words where a perfectly well known one will do.
Think about what you are writing. In a novel you are telling a story. If a passage does not add anything to the story you need to think carefully about whether you need it. You may decide that you want a slower, descriptive passage just to give a change of pace after an exciting fast moving scene. Sparing use of active and passive detail will work better than slowing the pace to include detailed description during the fast action.
‘Getting the character in’, using character tags and letting your reader get to know the main characters gradually, which is how we get to know new people in everyday life, is better than lengthy, static, physical descriptions on first meeting on the page.
Keep the story moving and use economy of language rather than ‘padding’.