When writing fiction, it is possible to ruin a perfectly good novel with words and phrases. Sounds bizarre, doesn't it? Aren't words and phrases the tools any writer needs to give their story life and vitality? Well, yes. But they only do this job well, if they are used economically and pertinently. It is a matter of style and voice.
Fiction is built on language and language is built on words. Words are used to communicate ideas. This only works though when both parties (the writer and the reader) are in agreement on what the words mean. What I am getting at is this; simplicity is often overlooked in favour of flowery or unreadable language.
The road to writing a great novel is full of pitfalls; errors can be made in opening chapter, whilst developing characters and in the pacing and energy of the writing, to name but a few. But for now, let's explore some common mistakes that new writers make in the use of words and phrases.
The thesaurus is a useful tool for any writer, whether they have years of experience or are just beginning. However, mis-use of the thesaurus can lead to language that alienates the reader.
Many novice writers start with the belief that using obscure words from the far reaches of the English language will lead to them being revered as a literary genius. Using long, impressive words that are unfamiliar to the reader is not writing, it is showing off. The reader shouldn't need a dictionary to accompany their reading of your novel.
Of course there are cases when you will write words that you wouldn't necessarily use in everyday conversation; I don't use the word 'fathom' much in life, but most people have an understanding of its meaning.
The problem comes when words stand out for their rarity. If the reader stumbles upon a word (or in the worst case scenario, a series of words) that mean absolutely nothing to him, you may as well have written cpsidjvwjhaskdjhbrm and hoped for the best. Unfamiliar words disengage the reader and take them out of the story you are telling.
Please don't feel you must write as though you are constantly addressing a five year old child. There are exceptions to the rule; making the reader work occasionally is no bad thing. But more complex words should only ever replace simpler alternatives if they add something to the specificity of the idea you are trying to convey. Using 'edifice' instead of 'building' doesn't really tell the reader anything that wouldn't have been clear using the more obvious word. It tells them that you know the word 'edifice'.
2, The thesaurus ate my homework
An even less forgivable use of the thesaurus is to choose words that you don't even understand. Not only are you alienating the reader, you run the risk of completely mis-using the word in question.
'She vacated a myriad times in the naïvely prolonged girl'.
Any fool can see and hear that this sentence makes no real sense, but if you use a thesaurus without thinking for yourself, this could be the result.
A general rule is to only choose words from the thesaurus that you already have a strong relationship with. Make sure they add something unique to your writing; consider why you are using the word 'maroon' instead of plain old 'red'. If you feel this limits you, then work on expanding your vocabulary over time and widening your experience of certain words.
3, This sentence conveys nothing whatsoever
Falling back on generalised language when writing fiction is another problem that many new writers face.
'He was around average height and had a really interesting face'.
This sentence does nothing to forward our understanding of the character. Much better to choose specific, unusual aspects of his appearance to shape him in the reader's imagination.
4, You're the cat's purr!
Mixing and mis-using common phrases and expressions is another common error made by new writers. Speaking idiomatically means that you sound as though you belong to a certain culture. If a writer use idioms incorrectly, he sounds like a stranger from a foreign land (sometimes even a foreign planet).
An example: She was the crème de la piscine rather than She was the crème de la crème.
There is no dictionary or thesaurus to turn to for this problem, but luckily we live in the age of Google. If you are not entirely sure of an idiom you can search for its correct form online; if you are thinking you couldn't possibly check every phrase or expression that way, read on; you may be making the next mistake!
5, The sound of distant gunfire shattered the cliché
At some point in the past every cliché was a fresh, surprising and clever turn of phrase. That is the very reason they became clichés; they expressed something so brilliantly that it entered the consciousness of a particular culture.
Often using one of these phrases works in a similar way to using a single word, but expresses so much more. In these circumstances, clichés can be useful. Saying someone is 'drop dead gorgeous', for example conveys a particular idea instantly.
However, if these expressions are over-used when writing fiction, they drain your writing of all originality and in turn, of momentum and energy. The moral of the story? Use familiar phrases sparingly.
6, Listen to me!!! I'm making a very important point!!!
The exclamation mark is abused on a daily basis. Social networking sites and texts are over-loaded with them. If only that was their only domain, but unfortunately many writers of fiction (particularly those just starting out) over-use punctuation. I include myself in this bracket; I am fond of the semi-colon and probably use it far too frequently.
But back to our friend the exclamation mark. The trouble with filling your story with exclamation marks is that their power is diminished. As a general rule, they should be used extremely sparingly when someone 'exclaims' something extraordinary and only ever in dialogue.
When writing fiction, it is important to be aware of the rules outlined above. But always remember, rules are made to be broken. Don't let guidance of any type restrict the flow of your writing. Always begin by writing freely and make as many mistakes as you like. In your revisions for later drafts you can address these mistakes. Clearing them up will give your writing clarity and specificity.
Honest feedback on your work as a writer can be invaluable. If you are interested in sharing your work regularly with other writers check out the following article.