Dealing with submissions as editor can be difficult when you know the writer’s intentions are good and that he or she is just trying to put feelings and ideas out there. So let me throw this out here in the spirit of ‘helpfulness.’
The problems I have with a lot of people’s writing styles (including my own) usually seem to fall into a couple semi-related categories / situations:
“An author ought to write for the youth of his generation. .”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald
All writers start off as readers and tend to go through phases where we imitate certain writers we like. There’s no other way to learn. It can be super obvious when someone is in his or her Hemingway or Bukowski or some other phase. I’ve had several of these, including a protracted Jim Harrison phase.
This problem gets exacerbated when people are ‘taught’ how to write by teachers who themselves are still caught up in their Amy Hempel or David Foster Wallace or Peter Matthiessen phases.
How then, to write originally? Part of me says just ‘write through’ it. Go ahead and keep copying. Get it out. Get past it. But recognize that you’re doing it, copying someone else. The other part says: look at how you write emails. How your friends write emails.
Listen to how you talk to each other. How you describe things. How people talk on the street. This is the language of our generation. It’s way different than that of Fitzgerald’s.
Sometimes I tell people “Write the story the same way you’d tell it to your friend.”
The danger of writing how people talk however is when you confuse advertising and marketing language for communication on a personal level. But this is easy to recognize and fix. All you have to do is go line by line through your story and use the “would I say this to my friend?” test.
Example: Would you really tell your friend that the restaurant you visited had “a casual pace with a nice flavor of real Mexico”?
If you need to use a cliche for some reason, denoting it with quotation marks shows that you’re recognizing it.
Once you start recognizing these things about your writing style you’ll begin to notice other complexities and nuances. We’ll talk about more next week.