You know how, when you’re watching a speaker, you can tell if he or she is nervous? There are those tell-tale signs: trembling hands and voice, lack of eye contact, perspiration, twitches, lots of "ummms," and a myriad of other idiosyncratic gestures and signs that show he or she is not fully at ease in front of an audience.
Did you know that I can spot those same tell-tale signs in your writing?
If you’re not completely confident in your skills as a writer, and in what you’ve written in particular, there are warning signs that can tip off an editor or reader. I find them in query letters all the time, and, to a lesser extent, in articles and stories themselves.
The first tip-off? Stilted language.
Stilted language is formal and proper. It employs big words when small ones would suffice just fine. It "sounds" canned and over-prepared.
Example: "Marjorie was required to submit to a physician’s examination prior to the interview in which she would be considered for the position."
Doesn’t it sound like the writer is working too hard to impress here? Like she’s trying to SOUND like a journalist? "Real writers" don’t have to use big words and serious language to effectively get their point across. In fact, the more direct and simple the language, the better.
"Marjorie had to go for a doctor’s exam before the company would consider her for the job."
Is it "dumbing down" your language? No. It’s cutting through the thicket and allowing the words to flow as naturally as they would in your speech—just with the benefit of editing. It’s being purposely as understandable as possible, so that if someone was skimming your query/article quickly, he would still get the meaning, without tripping over S.A.T. words or unfamiliar phrasing.
Many professional writers (myself included) believe in writing first drafts quickly, so as not to give our brains enough time to censor, doubt, and question each word as it flows through us and onto the paper. When I write, whether it’s an article, story, or just about anything else, I pretend I’m talking to a friend. I want my friend to hear about this interesting thing I learned. So, I tell him in the same manner I’d tell him if he were sitting next to me in my living room. I don’t need to impress him (or confuse him!) by "spicing up" my writing with words like "proceed" and "consume" when the words "go" and "eat" would have worked just fine.
Stilted language is a sign that the writer is not confident that her OWN words—the words she would really use—are good enough. It’s puffing up the writing to suit an editor. But think about this: the more formal and convoluted the language, the harder the editor will have to think just to get through the piece. Too much thinking equals rejection, unless you’re writing for an academic or very intellectual market. Editors want clarity. They don’t want to have to reread sentences to get the meaning of your words. Once the eyes glaze over, you’re in trouble.
Another giveaway: namby-pamby qualifiers that shift the responsibility for the statements away from the author. Example: "It seemed to onlookers that Mayor Ross might possibly have been suffering from exhaustion."
Were you one of the onlookers? Was it pretty obvious that the guy was falling asleep at the podium? Then don’t shift the observation into a passive voice. Be confident in your own powers of observation and reasoning. "Mayor Ross seemed exhausted."
The same goes for overuse of "experts" and studies when none are needed. We all know that you’re supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night, right? Then why do people insist on writing, "According to doctors, eight hours of sleep per night is optimal"? You don’t need the doctor to say that for you. If you know it to be true, you can skip the "according to doctors" and get straight to your point, without pulling out of your own voice.
Another example: "usually," "probably," "most likely," "often," etc. Watch for these words in your writing. There are times when they’ll be necessary—and, then again, there are plenty of times when you can omit them.
I once had a psychology professor who prefaced every statement she made with the words "basically," "usually," or "typically." It undermined what she was saying, because it felt like she was unsure of herself. When you write these words, it translates to uncertainty—did Mary Beth go to church on Sundays, or did she "typically" go to church on Sundays? If she skipped once or twice a year, she went. You don’t need a qualifier. If she skipped every other week, then you can add a qualifier.
Be confident in what you are writing. Every time you shift away responsibility for your words by attributing them to someone else, or by watering them down with adverbs, you give the reader leeway to question whether or not you really know what you’re talking about.
Another tip-off: fear of making a point.
Similar to the problem with too many qualifiers, pulling out of your article too soon shows a lack of confidence in your message. Let’s say you wrote an entire article about how a certain kind of duck is going extinct. You talked about all the reasons why it’s happening, and you explained what people can do to help. Then you end it with a lame conclusion like "Further studies are needed" or "Experts will continue to examine the causes…" blah, blah. Again, if you know that what you’ve just said is true, you don’t need to end off with anything that detracts from your conclusion. Sure, further studies may be conducted, but does that take anything away from the evidence you’ve just reported? Let your point come through loud and clear. Make the decision to take a risk and be accountable for your words.
You don’t need to tie it all up neatly with a moral, a la Aesop’s Fables ("And that’s why we must all stop throwing plastic in the garbage"). Just let the strength of your entire article carry the message—let your readers come to the conclusions to which you’ve directed them, and don’t let them second-guess those conclusions by giving a wishy-washy ending.
Be bold. Be confident. And let your very best writing shine through.