July 15th, 2012, 07:39 PM
I write too formally and my writing lacks personality
What does too formal even mean? That's what I keep getting every time I try to get somebody to read my stuff. I have a science background so I'm assuming that has influenced my writing style a lot (lots of technical writing), but is there any way I can fix it?
Can anybody give me tips on how I can be less 'formal' or inject some 'personality' into my stories?
July 15th, 2012, 07:49 PM
I'd assume that when people call your work too "formal", what they mean is that it's either a) difficult to understand, or b) it's boring to them.
One thing you should look at is your diction. Are you using words common in day-to-day conversation, or are you using more obscure words? When people encounter a lot of words they don't recognize (or don't use too often) it can slow them down, and make them feel like they're reading a textbook rather than a story.
Another thing to consider is the common writer's advice, "show, don't tell." It's the difference between talking to someone giving an account of something they witnessed, and actually witnessing it yourself.
A book I'd recommend is Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. I think his advice would be helpful to you.
July 15th, 2012, 07:54 PM
Write and work on your voice.
Originally Posted by Caedus
July 15th, 2012, 07:59 PM
Thanks for the reply. Umm yes sometimes I tend to use a lot of unnecessary words, but im sure most of the people I've shown my stuff to have a broad vocabulary so that probably wasn't an issue.
Originally Posted by The Mayan
Im not sure I totally understand what 'show, dont tell' is trying to get at. Does it mean less description and more dialog? If I'm in somebody's head and I'm describing what is going on, am I not technically 'showing' ?
July 15th, 2012, 08:29 PM
Show is imagery that creates an impression on the reader, without having to tell it. For instance, if someone is crying does the author need to tell you that they're sad?
Originally Posted by Caedus
If your POV walks into a deserted building, with a whistling breeze outside and strange sounds coming from the basement, do you need to say the place is scary? No, because we get it.
Fred walked into the building and was instantly scared at the sight of a burning candle. This place is meant to be deserted, Fred thought.
Fred pushed on the door lightly, hoping the hinges would not creek. He peered inside. A single candle burned brightly, pushing back the shadows. This place is meant to be deserted, Fred thought as his skin prickled.
^^ Cliche', but you get the idea I hope.
Last edited by Cononomous; July 15th, 2012 at 08:39 PM.
July 15th, 2012, 09:04 PM
it could be worse
Cononomous gave an excellent example, but to answer your questions: Yes, and yes and no.
Originally Posted by Caedus
Yes, describe "less" in that just describe what is important to your character at that specific story time and place.
And, yes, you are technically in your character's head and describing what is going on from their perspective, but that's a form of telling too. It's a lazy way (or poorly understood way) to show and not tell. I do this ALL the time. When they say to get into your character's head, it is more like, get in your character's body. It is about relating the experience.
At least, that's what I've been told and what I've been desperately trying to do in my own writing.
July 16th, 2012, 01:02 AM
Don't worry about show and tell. Did you ask the people what they meant by formal? And if so, what examples from your writing did they use? Formal usually means that the writing style seems stiff to them. If they're not familiar with hard SF if you're writing that or bardic fantasy styles if you're writing that, then that might contribute as it would then seem stiffer to them than what they usually read.
July 16th, 2012, 05:37 AM
It doesn't matter what others think about your writing, as long as you enjoy reading it; because if you like reading it, there is probably somebody, somewhere, who will also enjoy reading it.
Write for yourself.
Now, if you want to make money from writing you are in the wrong genre
July 16th, 2012, 10:25 AM
I don't expect everybody to like what I read, but [formal, emotionless .. etc] seems to be the general attitude towards my writing. My purpose really is to communicate what's in my head, if anybody can get to the end of my story & understand it, it doesn't really matter to me what they think of it.
Originally Posted by Princeroth
For right now I just want to concentrate on learning the basics of the craft. Making money from my stories would be great but that's not my main motivation. Creating a hypothetical, and believable world is.
July 16th, 2012, 10:29 AM
The Road Goes Ever On
I just wondered, do you go back and do a second draft of your writing once it's finished? The reason I ask is because I used to have a similar situation, where I was getting all my thoughts down, trying my best to get the picture in my head onto the page. It was only when I went back through and re-drafted that I was able to make the writing come alive and get the technicalities right.
July 16th, 2012, 10:42 AM
it could be worse
As KatG said, finding out why they said what they said would help you pinpoint what you are doing that they find dis-tasteful.
Originally Posted by Caedus
I never did give you feedback on your short story, I'll do that later this week and at least give you my opinion (which isn't worth much).
July 16th, 2012, 12:14 PM
You want to throw a few sentences up and let us take a look at the word choice? Up to you on that. If they're feeling it's emotionless, then it may be that you are shorting your characters' emotional responses. That can be a problem in SF, often, as realistically, SF characters in various professions are going to try to promote a calm appearance at all times and discuss things with logic and method, not emotion, to do their jobs. But in the heads of the pov characters, there are emotional responses going on that can be shown. All characters are continually observing, responding to, analyzing and deciding on what they encounter and pov characters give us some of that info directly as the process is going on. Dialogue is excellent for some information, but interior exposition lets you download large chunks of info about everything from science to the characters in condensed form that is easy for readers to process. So it's usually a matter of paring them. If you're concentrating on action and your characters' speech is formal without intent, then you may be missing some components that would enhance the narrative. Or the people you had reading it just find your characters boring.
July 21st, 2012, 04:08 PM
Well from what's here in this thread, it could be a problem with voice or it could be a problem with pacing. Readers are not very good at identifying issues, only spotting when there is one. But in my experience, problems with narrative pacing outnumber authentic issues with voice by about 10 to 1. Particularly if you are a reasonably well adjusted person that's used to talking to others, your true voice is not likely to be overwrought.
On narrative pacing, you have to be succinct. You can use one very vivid specific word or simile to do the job, but then you need the confidence to move on. This confidence is hard for a lot of new writers to just have in their stomach. Not having it will make your writing seem overwrought, heavy, or "formal", whatever word is used by the reader of the day. Use a lesser seen word once, and you're ok. Continuing to describe the same thing periodically throughout, or taking too long on details that arent that central to the story will sink your writing, no matter what words you use.
July 21st, 2012, 04:34 PM
That is very good advice, it answers some questions i had. Thank you.
Originally Posted by N.S. Barrett
July 24th, 2012, 12:11 AM
I'll try to add a few specific things to look for. None are "wrong" all the time, but these do make writing "stiffer" and less flowing, and they're more typical of writing in science. In science you want to be absolutely clear and sufficiently detailed that someone else could repeat an experiment or a method of observation exactly. But in fiction, that would mean giving more information than the reader needs (or wants.) In fiction, the reader is your partner, actively visualizing what you show, actively anticipating (not just following) the plot. Leaving space for the reader's imagination to collaborate with yours makes for compelling writing.
Extended description/explanation. If your character is hiking out of a lush valley, up through a belt of forest, toward a bare, rocky summit, and the purpose of this passage is to get him up there so he will meet someone/see something important to the plot/ get shot, then don't describe every detail of the valley, the forest, the open summit. "John followed the track up from the lush water meadows spangled with flowers into the cool, resin-scented pines." Not "John looked up the valley. It was about two miles wide here, and he saw three farmhouses off to his left. One was taller than the other. The meadows near the river had several kinds of wildflowers growing in the lush grass: A, B, and C. One field had black cattle grazing in it. Another had brown and white..." etc. The reader needs to grasp the reason for what you're telling or showing. Too many details and the reader doesn't know which to pay attention to, and can't remember them all.
Explanations are the same way: you'll be tempted to give too much information all at once. You've got a character, say, who's on her way to the hardware store. She's already given that information as she grabs her purse: "OK, Aunt Jean, I'm off to the hardware store; I've got your list." Now if you add, "She was going to the hardware store to get the five items on her Aunt Jean's list: white paint, two paint brushes, a paint roller and a roller pan. They needed all that because her Aunt Jean could not afford to hire a painter. They would have to paint the living room themselves. It looked dingy. She had never painted with a roller before. She wasn't sure what kind of roller to buy" readers attention will fade. Some readers will be thinking "Get ON with it."
Overuse of passive constructions and participles: use these only where you need the exact meaning. "Dan threw the book across the room" rather than "The book was thrown across the room by Dan." "The sun shone" rather than "The sun was bright." Past, present, and future participles add words; avoid when possible. Here's a case where you need "was running": "When she saw him, he was running away from the bear." But if nothing happens while he's running home (for instance) then "He ran home" is stronger.
Very long sentences and/or paragraphs. Especially when trying to loosen up your writing, make it less formal, very long sentences are a hindrance. They make a formidable block of text that (some) readers can't handle easily. Great big blocks of text also look formal, even if the writing isn't. Worse, they can get a careful, formally trained writer into tangles. Sentences read better if they're varied in length and if no one sentence is the length of a normal paragraph. (Though all bets are off if you're a reincarnation of John Ruskin, who wrote wonderful extremely long sentences.) Keep in mind that short-term memory--what people can hold in awareness at one time--is about 5 to 7 units of data. Those "units" may be words or phrases or clauses, if the reader is skilled enough, and punctuation is your best tool for marking them off. Otherwise if you write completely intelligible but very long sentences without sufficient interior punctuation people will find them very hard to read and assume you are trying to be formal. Like that.
Technical language. Some technical language enhances a story. Too much technical language turns it into a lecture, not a story. Here you need to consider which bits of technical language a reader needs to follow the story (not to learn more about the immediate topic.) Good readers easily pick up word meanings in context, if the other words in that passage are familiar. So "While Carlson reported what he'd learned about Simpkin's background, Ron went on mixing reagents for the growth medium, poured it carefully into the waiting containers, and racked them ready for the autoclave. 'So,' he said when Carlson ran down, 'bottom line is you think he faked his resume?'" Readers will correctly (in this case) grasp that the plot isn't about what reagents went into the growth medium, but there's some mystery about Simpkin's background and Carlson (and maybe Ron) are trying to find out about him. Most readers will get "reagents" and "growth medium" and "autoclave" but might be bored (esp. if nothing came of it later) if you stopped to explain in detail how Ron measured the reagents, what they were, why they were used for this instead of other reagents, and so on.
Read your work aloud with as much expression as if you were telling a small child a story. If your voice falls into a monotonous drone or sing-songy obvious rhythm...something's wrong. Monotonous drones usually go with long declarative sentences describing or explaining. Sing-songy usually reveals a series of sentences constructed the same way, with the same cadence. If you get out of breath, the sentence is definitely too long or you've punctuated it badly. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else read it aloud (a good oral reader, that is.) If they stumble--fix that. If as you listen it's hard to follow--fix that.