At workshop we critics often disagree about what makes good/bad writing. Some of us defend poor grammar and punctuation as creative license. “We aren’t writing themes for English 101.” Others accept point of view (POV) discrepancies. “Best-selling writers do it.” Illogical plots either engage or alienate us. Repetitious words either provide emphasis or tedium. We divide on whether characters are developed or half-baked.
Perhaps the most valid criticisms of our work are those that point out amateurish writing. But what separates amateurish from professional?
It would require a book to address subjects such as coherence, clarity, dialogue, tone, etc. But we can touch on what makes us appear amateurish. Let’s give this a mega/mini treatment.
MEGA—THE BIG PICTURE
—Duplication of what has already been published. Will savvy readers recognize your plot or characters from other novels? We may be copying a story from a book we’ve read. Years ago, George Harrison was sued and found guilty of subconscious plagiarism of an earlier tune. The point is, we may be unaware.
—Unnoted shifts in point of view (POV). I’ve heard writers argue that POV is irrelevant. Might as well argue that plot is irrelevant, or dialogue or setting.
—Untrustworthy fabrication. When you create a fictional world, it has a “reality” that you created. To break with that reality, even in little ways, is to lose faith with your “truth.”
—Lack of knowledge about language usage. What makes people think skills acquired through instruction and practice aren’t necessary for a person to become a writer? Unlike, say, a surgeon? Okay, anybody can write a blog, you say. Yes, and if I can pull out a splinter, I can remove an appendix.
Let’s get to the mini with a list. You may say generalities are useless when it comes to creativity, but they can coach those of us learning the game. According to an issue of Writer’s Digest* that I found in my office, if you open a story with one of the following, you’re an amateur:
action that turns out to be a dream
an alarm clock buzzing
a phone ringing
little or no dialogue for three pages
alternatives for said
the villain, if it’s a mystery
outlandish names like Sky or Zebediah
Because we get numerous suggestions in workshop about what to change, it’s up to us to figure out which criticisms to accept and which to reject. As we participate in critiques and hone our work, we’re becoming more skilled in recognizing amateurish writing. In large measure, that skill comes from reading what others write. And that’s why we often hear the advice from professionals to read, read, read.
Bonnie Stanard has been writing and editing for 25 years. Her poems and short stories have been published in journals such as The MacGuffin, Slipstream, Harpur Palate, and Kestrel. Her three antebellum novels are available on amazon.com with a fourth due out this summer. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina.