Note: This post was originally scheduled for 1/10/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
Once upon a time, I edited a manuscript that was teeming with clichés, ripe to bursting with platitudes and filled to the brim with trite, self-serving crap.
It virtually screamed Look at me! Aren’t I wonderful? Aren’t I generous with my time and helpful in all things? Aren’t I just pretty much Oprah on steroids?
Of course, the clichés and platitudes were slumping along behind like great lummoxes, mumbling, Hey, uh, looky here. I ain’t never had one original thought, an’ I’m dang proud of it. This here’s m’nose-pickin’ finger. Yup, I’m dumber’s a bagga bricks.
Did you ever read something that actually made you recoil?
The unoriginal writing in that particular masterpiece bludgeoned me so strongly and so often that I wanted to curl into the fetal position and hide beneath my desk. I hoped the writing gods would come and spirit that evil piece of sh-riting from my laptop.
They didn’t. I’d gotten myself into it, they said, so I could get myself out. Ugh.
So why did I accept the manuscript for editing? I got lax.
Although the writer sent me the full manuscript per my request, I took the sample edit from the first few pages. It didn’t take long during the edit to realize those pages plus a few more had been previously edited so that they weren’t ugly, hairy legged, knuckle-dragging things slouching toward some poor, unsuspecting reader.
But hey, mea freakin’ culpa. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to f-i-n-i-s-h t-h-e e-d-i-t. Have I mentioned how happy I am to be writing full time now?
But back to the original point. Far more important than me having to put up with a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible—I suppose I could have written that (horrible)5—piece of writing was the realization that many writers, we who are supposed to be sources of original thought, simply aren’t.
So here’s a new rule for you, annotated to ease understanding. Not that YOU need it to be annotated—I realize that—but face it: some of the folks reading this are missing more than a few spots off their dominoes.
Strive (attempt with all the power of your will)
never (not even once)
to write (put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard or mouth to recorder)
an unoriginal thought (a syllable or series of syllables that have been uttered before, by anyone, at any time, anywhere, ever)
except as you do so purposefully (intentionally, with intent, on purpose)
to create (cause to occur, bring into being)
a certain (premeditated, planned, intentional, particular)
effect (emotion, gasp, increase in heart rate, smile, chuckle, laugh, recoiling in horror, etc.)
in the reader (person whom you want to impress so much with your work that s/he will seriously consider breaking into your home just to learn more about you).
Again, Strive never to write an unoriginal thought except as you do so purposefully to create a certain effect in the reader.
That one rule would cover a LOT of the other lessons I’ve tried to teach writers over the years, especially if you include the use of the various marks of punctuation in that “create a certain effect in the reader” part. And you should.
Of course, if one of your characters actually speaks in clichés and utter platitudes per his role in society, that’s fine. Let him.
At least until you hire another character to fit the cliché-ridden guy with reinforced-concrete underwear and drop him off a pier somewhere.
Give me three hours’ notice and I’ll drive. Hey, I’ll even help you load him in the trunk. But your narrator… well now, that’s different.
See, thing is, you’re a Writer. You were brought into existence on this funny, filthy little blue marble to shake it the hell up, to look it in the eyes and dare it to say or do something that you can turn into a story.
And in your writing, although your characters will wander around being themselves (as they should), your narrator can’t.
The narrator describes the scene, period, albeit through the characters’ senses and the characters’ OPINION of that scene. The narrator provides a great transitory bridge between the colorful, magical world of your story and the grey-white, humdrum existence of your reader’s reality.
You and your narrator will describe the scenes in vibrant, expansive splashes of prose that leave the reader gasping for breath, not crawling under his desk to hide from an onslaught of boredom.
You and your narrator will make readers laugh until their sides ache, cry until they’re dry, or sleep for three weeks with one eye open.
You and your narrator are too intelligent to mumble clichés or platitudes when you have a perfectly good brain right there between your ears.
And I hope you’re just plain too stubborn to use something someone else has used a thousand times.
So get on with it!
‘Til next time, happy (original, unboring, unclichéd) writing!
I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.
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