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Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Transparency for writers - how not to point at yourself

When writing a book, I am obsessed by the quality of my own writing. I agonize over choice of words, apposite phrases, clever ways to convey what I want to say. When a reader reads a book they don't want to see any of that - they want to hear the story. They want the author to be transparent. This is why we are urged to use the word "said" for our speech attributions - a word that is neutral, invisible. As soon as we say "retorted" or "quipped" or (heaven help us) "declaimed", then we are pointing at ourselves with the "look at me I'm a writer" finger. The more the writer gets in the way of the story, the less involved in the reality of the story the reader will be.

Likewise, too many adverbs or exclamation marks make the writer suddenly appear at the reader's shoulder as convincer -
e.g  "Shut up!" he said crossly.
instead of, "Shut up," he said.
The writer is trying to force the reader to understand what they have probably already understood - thus making another unwanted appearance.

Too many similes or metaphors also point to our own cleverness, and can bring the reader up short.
eg Writer : "The water was black as treacle."
Reader: "Black as treacle? Is treacle black? What does she mean?"
Hey presto, the writer is muscling in again.

A lot of the knack of transparency is scrupulous awareness. If you are particularly proud of a phrase, view it with suspicion! It is probably a phrase where you are showing off, and therefore putting yourself between the reader and the page. Awareness for a writer is about being able to put yourself in the reader's seat and having the courage to remove your cleverness in favour of the truth of the story.

Many writers think that if they give up pointing at themselves they will lose their own unique voice. This is not so, as your voice will be there even more strongly if you get your ego out of the way of it.

This idea applies as much to life as it does to creativity.

The best book I can recommend on awareness in general is Awareness by Anthony de Mello. Eminently sane advice without any new-age nonsense.

For looking at this topic from a writer's perspective, the writer Dorothea Brande, (whose book, "Becoming a Writer" has been a classic for the inward journey since the 1930's) has another work, "Wake up and live!" available for free as a pdf here:
Although a little dated, it has some excellent ideas about how to succeed creatively.

As some people know, I am a great promoter of meditation in all its forms - here is a nice post by the writer Orna Ross on the benefits of meditation and awareness for writers:

And on a completely different topic,  for anyone interested, my post on 17th Century Garden Design for Women  is over at the English Historical Fiction Authors site. And you can win a copy of The Lady's Slipper at Brits United. (Until 5th April)


  1. Dee, I so agree. I recently read (for the Vine programme) a novel by a writer a relaly admrie. But she had changed her style, and the writing was so peppered with adverbs and peculiar desriptions that I wanted to throw it at the wall, and ended up giving up on it. I came clean in my review, and admitted I'd been unable to finish the book, and a reader commented very angrily that I couldn't review a novel I hadn't finished. Good point. But the style was, quite simply, unbearable.

  2. You've made some great points here and helped me to stop worrying so much over hunting out new ways of saying what I could have just simply said. Thank you.

  3. An interesting post. I'll have to go and re-examine my manuscript to see how much of of me intrudes in my work.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  4. Hello Deborah, I enjoyed your post and can't wait to have a look at the links. I recently started doing yoga and the idea that meditation can increase creativity is fascinating. There is a yoga class near me with meditation which I've thought about trying and I may have a go.

  5. Very helpful post, Deborah, thanks.

  6. Hello Frances, "adverbs and peculiar descriptions" - it almost makes me want to read it! I wonder if style will swing back and new writing will be florid andv all about the writer!

    Jamara, thanks for stopping by.Glad it was useful.

    And Kiru, you definitely don't want to put yourself in with the reader in your sort of books! That could be quite an eye-opener! "Author muscles in on hot action!"

    Anita, good luck with your yoga. Will I see you at the RNA conference in Penrith?

    Hi Su, thanks for the compliment. Hope your writing is going well.

  7. Hi Deborah, I can't make the conference but hope to see you at the RNA Summer party?

  8. thank so much about your advice, because this is my problem i didn't really care before:how to write a very transparent, smoothly writing when you need to express yourself in writing, not only when you want to be a writer, but also when you need it for taking an exam as well.Thank so much and have a good day, lady!

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  10. I am trying to write scientific papers, which keep the reader (the tired researcher) interested and focused. Staying transparent (as you described) might reduce distractions.

    Thank you, I will use it where I can.