September 27, 2018
"Fake it 'til you make it. How many of us have heard that advice? Sometimes it's a good thought. It doesn't hurt to step out boldly sometimes, even when you're not 100% sure of the outcome, even when you're scared. So in that, sometimes it's okay to pretend to be braver than you are and try things that make you nervous. Unfortunately, that same thinking can run you into trouble when you let it leak onto your writing style. Many newer writers, especially those not totally confident of their style (or even sure what style means) will try to write the way they think they're supposed to, and that leads to mistakes that could be avoided simply by writing like you, instead of writing like whoever you think you should be.
Trying to be Writerly
One of the common issues with trying to write the way you think you should instead of what’s really true to you is that most new writers think they should be a lot more wordy and a lot more flowery. They'll try to write lyrical poetry, all the time, even when writing prose. The result tends to fall into what editors call "purple prose" or "overwriting." Some of the impetus of that comes from all the literature classes we took in our lives where ornate prose and unusual turns of phrase were praised. Ultimately for writers, the problem amounts to trying too hard to sound writerly.
For example, you might look at your child's hair and notice the sun glinting off of it, creating a streak of blue in the shine of the black strands. And you could write that. It would be clear and evocative and give the reader something to imagine.
Or you could try to be writerly. And then you might write something like: "The sun caught a strand of Megan's hair afire, burning it pure until it seemed lit with blue fire from within." That attempt at a metaphor might sound writerly, but it's also a bit confusing on first read. The poor kid's hair caught on fire? Eeek! You might think that's silly, but it's also not terribly uncommon.
That doesn't mean it's wrong to use a metaphor. Metaphors are cool, as are similes and all the other nifty figures of speech. But anything of that sort that you use should always be in service of two other, far more important things: clarity and story. A metaphor that muddles up the meaning and takes the reader extra pondering or attention to sort out, weakens the clarity of the writing. Especially if it gives a false impression that might linger for a time. Say the reader honestly thinks you're saying the girl's hair caught fire and carries that thought into the next few sentences, while wondering at no one mentioning the fire. Eventually the reader is nearly certain to sort it out, but everything between the point where the confusion happened and the point where the reader sorted it out is now lost. That bit of story can't be counted on to support anything that comes next.
Plus, whenever you confuse a reader or make them spend extra time parsing your meaning, you jerk them completely out of the story. And if you let a reader leave a story, even for an instant, you make way for all of the other things that reader might be doing to crowd in and steal him or her away. So if you do decide to stretch and try some figurative language and other writerly bits, keep a close watch on the result. If it compromises clarity or story even a little, kick it out, because it's not doing you any good. You know all the times writers have said they had to “Kill their darlings?” This is what they meant. Sometimes a phrase must be discarded, even when you worked hard on it, even when it sounds so much like a writer. Because anything in the story that interferes with clarity or disrupts the story has got to go.
Trying to Sound Smart
Trying too hard to perform when writing doesn't just happen in the actual manuscript. It's an even bigger issue in cover and query letters. That's when all our business or academic writing comes crowding in on us. That's when our need to sound smart or accomplished or well educated can seriously get us into big trouble. The best thing a cover or query letter can do is present the manuscript clearly and sound like you. Not the academic version of you or the version of you with a bigger vocabulary. The real, actual you. Because the you that is real is the one that is also unique. It’s the one the editor or the agent on the other end is looking for.
One way this kind of writing manifests is in using words that you're not completely, fluently conversant with. If one of the words is not used correctly this can result in a sentence that reads oddly. This is something that happens in many, many early query or cover letters as writers reach for bigger words and the use will be almost right, but not quite. That kind of thing is jarring for the editor or agent who receives the letter. It’s also what will distract the reader from what you most want them to focus on: your manuscript.
Another way this manifests is in long, often convoluted or oddly twisted sentences. It can even result in sentence fragments when a long sentence simply grinds to a close, burdened with all manner of clauses, but completely missing a subject or a verb or a required direct object. Try to write your letter as if you're explaining your work to a friend, someone who isn't testing you on the use of writer jargon or the biggest words, someone who just wants to know what you wrote about. If you do that, you'll be more relaxed, more understandable, and usually more successful.
Professional? What Is That?
Writers talk frequently about being professional. So do editors and agents. Editors and agents want to work with professional writers, but that doesn't mean they only want to work with stiffly formal writers. It doesn't mean they only want to work with writers who employ huge vocabularies. It doesn't mean they only want to work with writers who can juggle all the business jargon that grows up around writing and publishing. Instead, it means they want to work with writers who behave respectfully, don't waste their time, and can be counted on to be as good as their word. It's actually possible to be casual, friendly, natural, and completely professional while doing those other things.
Now, having said that, being professional does affect some of the choices you'll make. And it may mean not being quite as chatty as you'd be if you were writing to a pal. A professional writer penning a query or cover letter sticks to the task at hand and doesn't wander off to tell stories about the grandkids or other tangential subjects. Newer writers sometimes live in terror that their query or cover letter isn't long enough because they can't fill it with publishing credits, so they'll launch into tangential stories instead, creating a paragraph all about how much they've learned from interacting with the grandkids or how well they remember their own childhoods (or worst of all, how bad the current generation of kids is or what they think is wrong with today’s literature.) If you have to mention a real-life connection to a story, do it because it's important to make the story sound more exciting or more appealing or more believable. For example, this would be a personal detail that still makes for a professional letter: "In my twenties, I spent summers working as a rodeo clown, which inspired this story of Pete, a young boy whose attempt to follow in the footsteps of his rodeo clown uncle nearly ends in catastrophe." In this case, including the personal experience makes the editor trust that the rodeo details will probably be correct.
On the other hand, this would not be a personal detail that belongs in a professional letter: "The enclosed story was a big hit with all five of my grandchildren, and they ask for it every time they visit." Neither would this: “my little dog, Joe, always makes me laugh, which is why I had to include a dog in this story.” The rodeo clown example helps the editor know that the story is credible as the writer has experience in that area. The grandkids example is simply filler as it doesn't give information that the editor needs and the dog remark might explain why there’s a dog in a story where a dog doesn’t add anything to the plot, but it doesn’t do anything to help the story succeed with the editor or agent.
So when trying to live up to the title "professional," keep in mind that professional communication should sound natural and clear, should focus on what the recipient of the letter needs to know, and doesn't need to include information the editor or agent doesn't need. By the way, that includes negative disclosures. If you've been out of work for the last year and are trying to make money for the family through writing, that's something to save for when you're interviewed years from now about those tough early days. It doesn't go in your query or cover letters. If that manuscript you're sending has been rejected a dozen times, but you're hoping for a good connection this time, that's something to keep under your hat. If you've never been published and you hope this will be your first publication, you can share that with the editor after they buy the piece. For now focus on what the editor or agent needs to know about the manuscript you’re trying to sell, but if you have information that wouldn't help you, just don't share it.
So, don't overshare. But do relax. An editor or agent wants to read writing that comes from you, and doesn't try to be something you're not. Write with the ease you have now and your work with be more authentic, more enjoyable, and more successful. I promise.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.