As a copyeditor, I basically polish turds for a living. People pay me money to make their prose look less like something that came out of a cat’s asshole.
Now, the vast majority of my clients are, in their own way, accomplished storytellers that need little in the way of constructive criticism – a little spit-and-polish and I can make their prose shine brighter than a porn star’s bleached bum hole; I simply dust off my hands and move on to the next project. However, every once and a while I come across some “writer” who thinks they’re the next god damned Charles Dickens, even though their creative process resembles letting a meth-addled orangutan take a violent dump on their keyboard.
I’m not going to sit here with my nose turned up and my thumb up my asshole, but I’m more than capable of handing out a few nuggets of wisdom that I’ve gleaned when it comes to the actual process of crafting a coherent narrative. First of all, there are a couple of rudimentary things that people need to learn if they want to write prose, and I don’t mean things like have interesting characters or a well-developed plot – I mean stuff like making your prose more painful to read than Vogon poetry.
It’s really so simple. You don’t need an advanced degree in English to understand this shit. In fact, you just need to know two very simple things: 1) exposition is the devil and 2) real people don’t talk like robots. Now, we’re going to tackle these one at a time this week, so strap yourself in for a few days of free writing advice. I know sharing this might just put me out of a job, but fuck it – here goes:
1. Expository writing is boring as shit.
There’s a time and a place for exposition. If you’re writing an academic paper or a piece for your local fishwrapper, you have to present facts clearly and coherently in a way that even an idiot could understand what’s going on. This means you spend the majority of your time explaining things in sometimes minute detail. Facts are presented, analyzed, and sometimes interpreted to provide insight or information.
There’s nothing wrong with exposition. It has its place, but relying upon expository writing when crafting a fiction narrative – whether it be a piece of slash-fiction or the Great American Novel – makes the work painful and exhausting to read. It’s just not entertaining. Instead, you should focus not on telling your reader what your characters are thinking and feeling but instead show them. Yes, it takes longer and it’s much harder, but it makes your prose much more readable and interesting.
You want an example? Fine, feast your eyes on this steaming pile of donkey shit:
Ralph was mad. He had to stay late at work, so he got stuck in traffic on his way home. Not only that, but he had to bring work home with him, too, so even when he got home he had to keep working. It made him irritable and cranky, and he felt sorry for himself that he had such a crappy job.
Now there are several problems with this paragraph, and I don’t mean poor spelling or grammar – the biggest issue instead is that it’s just god damned boring. Sure, you give the reader lots of information about Ralph and how angry he is at his awful job, but it’s just not interesting. Instead, think about how the paragraph would read if you showed your reader how Ralph was feeling instead of just telling him:
Ralph sat in his car, his brows furrowed, illuminated dimly by the glowing tail lights of the long line of cars ahead of him. His clothes were rumpled and stained, and a massive pile of folders sat next to him in his passenger’s seat. He scowled as the light turned green, then cursed as a car cut him off. He slammed on his brakes and pounded his car horn viciously, gesticulating wildly at the driver in front of him, who promptly flipped him off. Ralph gripped the steering wheel and squeezed, imagining it was the scrawny neck of his supervisor at work and fantasizing about choking out the bastard until he passed out, then leaving a Post-It note on his forehead that had “I quit” scrawled across it.
Now, you tell me: which paragraph is more entertaining to read?