The Pretty Writing Trap

I don’t know about you guys, but for the longest time my goal was to make my writing sing. I searched for the perfect metaphor, traded similes until the right one rang clear and when I closed my eyes I tried to picture my descriptions perfectly so it would resound on the page.

And technically, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Those are all things that are important to master while writing.
That’s all good and well, and I was pretty happy with the result. That is, until one of my crit partners came to me and told me my pretty writing was getting in the way of my protagonist’s voice.

Whoa. I read that comment at least half a dozen times. Then I raced back to my WIP and was instantly mortified. My partner was totally right. In my quest to beautify my writing, I neglected the voice. This was especially tragic since my WIP was in first person. *cringe*

So I rewrote the first part of the sample for the umpteenth time with a focus on my MC’s voice. I stopped panicking. This was a feasible fix. It’d take a lot of rewriting, but it wasn’t a death sentence. Plus the new version was a million times better.

But it got me thinking. Somewhere deep down inside I knew writing pretty wasn’t the goal, yet somewhere along the line I’d forgotten. True writing is what we should aim for. True to you and, most importantly, true to your character.

My MC was a seventeen-year-old guy and I was using phrases like “phantom rain” and “limp and delicate as a newborn.” It wasn’t until after I became aware of my tendency towards pretty writing that it occurred to me no sane seventeen-year-old boy is going to say that. Geesh.

So. When reviewing your work, here are two questions to ask yourselves: Am I writing pretty? Is this something my MC would say or something I like because it’s a nice image?

Remember the old adage kill your darlings? Yeah. That applies to now. Like that beautiful simile that you spent hours on—was that YOU or your character?

Think about it.

Edit: I know I kind of mentioned this, but I'd like to clarify--please don't worry about this or any other editing issue while writing your first draft, just get it down. This is something to consider while editing. That is all. :)

Have you fallen into the writing pretty trap? What other things do you try to look out for when editing?


Unknown said...

It might be the non-fiction writer in me, but I'm very into the raw material movement. For example, my #wordmongering numbers are high because I just get the clay on the page. Yesterday was so bad as "After eating xyz, MC stared at his fiancee. The shock of the prenup and now her conditions to accept his daughter swirled the contents of his stomach in a very disagreeable way. After...."

Now obviously, that's horrible. But it's clay. Clay I can mold. Clay I can sculpt (not that I'm an actual sculptor, I can make that snake vase thing really well though).

For me, I just have to throw the words up on the page, then go back and fix it. I can't try to pretty and write at the same time <--- crippling perfectionism.

So maybe one way to get out of pretty is throw crap up on the page. :)

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...


So true! I mostly meant this for when editing. I think I might fix the wording of that question to convey that.

I'm part of the "throw up crap on the first draft" school. Trying to perfect it first time around just...makes everything far too difficult.

Kelley said...

I agree with this. Being pretty is dangerous for when you're trying to be authentic. But, you said, it's not something worth worrying about until after you've gotten over the first draft hump.

Jennie Bennett said...

I've had that problem too. There are days when I write two chapters of straight dialogue (not good) and other days when I can't seem to do anything but describe (not good either). But like Elizabeth said at least I can mold it into something workable :)

Krista said...

After writing the first draft of my first chapter I read back over it and hated it. The problem was that I was reading LOTR at the time so I was mimicing Tolkien's voice. That was not my voice. So my personal rule is I can't read something right before I write.

Also, when I am editing I look for be verbs and passive sentences. Removing them makes my writinf much more powerful.

Unknown said...

I have NEVER fallen into the pretty trap ever. O_o LOL! I mean... I've always like the Stephen King kind of writing, you know? I like to bludgeon language and be proud of it. I like to cut up sentences and let them fend for themselves. Yeah... I guess I'm an odd duck. I read this about writing pretty somewhere the other day and I said the same, but I wonder why writers need to write beautifully? I mean, is there a guidebook I was supposed to read. Nah, I suppose it's individual style and ze love of language. Wait, does that mean I hate the language? Huh. INSIGHT! :D

Joseph said...

I love your posts Ava :) I totally agree with your edit, in fact that is what I hold myself to, a rough draft is just that and everything needs to be put down because editing is most certainly a trap.

It's true, I've often pained myself to try and get the right words out onto the page, and sidetracked by what is there that I've forgotten about what's behind the words and painting pictures with them.

Anonymous said...

This is something that I've ALWAYS kept in mind during critiques. When I read things over and I read a thirteen year old girl from the 21st century saying "Twas not yet dawn..." something inside me just SCREAMS.

I find that the culprit isn't always a writer wanting their work to sound PRETTY, but wanting it to sound GROWN-UP! Just today, I read over a friend's story and found that he used absolutely no contractions in a story set in modern days and from the POV of a teenager. The rest of the writing, for the most part, was fine, but that one thing - not using contractions - actually lead to the story reading COMPLETELY wrong.

Wonderful posts; really. I'm really enjoying them.

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

Ah! Thanks for all the comments guys, you're all awesome. :)

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