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January 23, 2014
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Readymades: Hallmarks of Lazy Writing

Thu Jan 23, 2014, 1:31 PM


Readymades

Hallmarks of Lazy Writing


ShadowedAcolyte here for projecteducate's Prose Basics Week. I decided to tackle "lazy writing" as a topic, because they always say "write what you know" and boy, do I know laziness. Then I realized there were dozens of ways to be a lazy writer, so I heroically narrowed the scope of my article down to one broad topic: readymades. After talking about what a "readymade" is, I'll explain why they should be avoided in writing prose*,  and I'll finish with some tips to help you avoid using them yourself.

Before we go any further, I should note that the term is not a technical one. It is the word I was taught to use to identify a set of common problems with weak writing, so it's the word I use. I hope you'll find this article helpful, but it's not a textbook.

*I say "prose" because it's Prose Basics Week, but readymades infect poetry as well. If you're more a poet than a prose writer, read along and insert "poetry" wherever this article says "prose". I won't tell anyone if you don't.





What is a "readymade", anyway?


Broadly, a readymade is a bit of language so common in prose, so familiar to the reader, that its use is a sign of weak writing. I say "bit of language" because readymades can be as small as a single word ("smirk") or as long as a complete sentence ("Her eyes flashed with anger."). The real key part of the definition is "so common in prose, so familiar to the reader". Readymades are things you've seen before—a lot. They pop up all over the place. Worse, they pop up in your head when you're writing, luring you with their cheap and easy ways. But by the end of this article, you'll be able to identify and resist them.


This is me when I read the word "smirk" in prose.

Do you have some examples?


Readymades come in all shapes and sizes. The following categories are not intended to cover all possible readymades, only the most pervasive types. And they're not mutually exclusive, either. It's less important to argue over which category a readymade might fall into than to identify it as a readymade.

:bulletred: Clichés - stale images or metaphors: "beauty is skin deep", "baptism by fire", "bad blood", etc.
:bulletred: Archetypes - common, flat characters or motivations: "prodigal son", "soldier who drinks to forget", "good vs. evil", etc.
:bulletred: Plug-and-Play Phrases - wordy, inelegant constructions: "the fact of the matter is that", "the bottom line here is", "plays a role in", etc.
:bulletred: Buzzwords - single words that are overused: "hissed", "must-see", "epic", etc.

But why are readymades bad?


Let's say you're hungry right now, and you sit down to a delicious meal of spaghetti with meat sauce. It's tasty and filling. Then let's say tomorrow you get the same meal. And the same meal the next day. Before long, what was excitingly tasty has become boring. Soon, it might become unappetizing or even repulsive.

Prose is the same way. Readers see readymades so often that they become bland phrases. The opposite of readymade language I like to call "fresh" language. Fresh language is exciting and provocative. Pieces with a lot of readymades can be accurately described as having "weak style" or "weak voice". Using unoriginal language creates unoriginal prose.

Worse, readymades are recognizably lazy constructions. If you use them, you are telling the reader that you didn't give a piece your best effort, which is sure to be a turn-off.



Ok, so they're bad. Got any tips to help me avoid them?


:bulletred: This is my most important tip: if a line, phrase, or word pops into your head rapidly and immediately, and it feels familiar, check to see if it's a readymade before using it! Example: you might ask yourself, "how can I show that this character is afraid?", and you brain helpfully grabs the first readymade it thinks of: "chills ran down his spine". That's en entire phrase that has become dull from overuse, and it should clearly be avoided. Readymades can be insidious, and you have to train yourself to recognize them to keep your reader engaged.

:bulletred: Sticking with the same example, let's say you're really in the writing zone, and the scene is going really well, but you can't figure out a way to say that the character is scared without using that readymade, and you really want to keep writing. Type/write the readymade, and then highlight it somehow before continuing on. That way, you'll be sure to come back to the line when editing to think of something stronger.

:bulletred: If you edit your writing (and you should!), be sure to check for readymades. Say to yourself, "Have I seen this word/phrase/description before?" or "Can I avoid using a familiar word/phrase/description here?"

:bulletred: Get feedback! Ask a reader specifically to look for readymades. And listen when people point them out to you. Your readers will know what they've seen before and what they haven't.

:bulletred: If you've identified a readymade and are having trouble thinking of a stronger replacement, even when editing, you can remember two handy guidelines for strong prose: specific language is better than general language, and concrete language is better than abstract language.

:bulletred: Read a lot! If you're reading bad writing, it will expose you to readymades so you can recognize and avoid them. If you're reading good writing, it will expose you to inspiring, fresh language you can use as an inspiration when wrestling with your own readymades. And you might want to read your own writing to certain words or phrases you overuse.

:bulletred: One place readymades tend to show up a lot, and not always as a poor choice, is in dialogue, because people do talk in clichés all the time. However, too many readymades in your dialogue will still be weak writing. And the goal of writing prose dialogue is rarely to replicate real speech, with its "hums" and "umms" and pauses, but to write good prose dialogue.

:bulletred: Lastly, a good exercise is writing far outside your comfort zone, be it in prose length, genre, tone, diction, what-have-you. If you write all fiction, try nonfiction, that sort of thing. When trying a new style of writing, your brain will probably dig up a lot of readymades for you to practice identifying and rewriting. And when you go back to your usual style, you might see some readymades in your older work you might otherwise have missed.

This all sounds like hard work.


Maybe a little, especially at first. However, there are rewards to look forward to: developing your own personal voice, creating more original prose, and strengthening your prose style. You can do it! I know you can.


...but totally worth it!

Useful Links


:bulletred: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", a well-known essay on language use
:bulletred: Seven Rules for Avoiding Wordiness (pdf), a guide with lots of good examples
:bulletred: "Specific Imagery: What Makes a Poem Good?" by HaveTales-WillTell, which is geared toward poetry but has excellent advice for the prose writer as well

Questions for the community:


:bulletred: Do you struggle with readymades? Try going back to a recent prose piece—can you identify any readymades?
:bulletred: Are there any tips you use to avoid using readymades on your own that you'd like to share?
:bulletred: We've learned that I hate "smirk". Are there any readymades you find particularly terrible?
:bulletred: What other types of lazy writing have you encountered?






Something to avoid in your writing!
Add a Comment:
 
:icondragoeniex:
dragoeniex Featured By Owner Jun 11, 2014
The only one I'd fight you on is "smirk." To me, it's just another facial expression like "smile" or "scowl."

The trick is using it very sparingly so it actually means something when it shows up. E.g. If your characters are smirking at each other with every witty comeback, it becomes tiresome. If someone smirks in the middle of a depressing situation and makes a terrible pun? It might startle other characters or the readers into a laugh.

This is definitely a great article. It was interesting, informative, and you even used funny gifs to get around defensiveness or tl:dnr responses. :) I could stand to watch myself more for phrases like these during edits. Thanks for the advice!
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2014
Many people have spoken up in defense of "smirk" in these comments. :) I have seen it too many times used badly to not shudder even when it's used appropriately. Thanks for the comment!
Reply
:icondragoeniex:
dragoeniex Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2014
Heh, sorry. I should probably read more than a few comments before posting myself. And you're very welcome :3
Reply
:iconforcedlactationlover:
Forcedlactationlover Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I have a piece of advice that might help here. If you think that you overuse a certain word particularly, the cure is simple, but done best it will involve a small expense ($10.00 -$15.00). Get a Roget's Thesaurus. Because I'm prone to reusing favourite words too often in a short phrase or piece, I use this to vary commonalities with words of similar meaning, and Roget's is an excellent source of new or different ways of saying essentially the same thing. I use mine all the time. It sits on my computer desk for easy reference.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2014
or thesaurus.com!
Reply
:iconforcedlactationlover:
Forcedlactationlover Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I've never happened, or needed, to use that, but I've had the Thesaurus since before there were personal computers, let alone the internet. I'm also a bookish, fairly conservative type. So, I don't change unless I see the need to.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014
haha no problem! I often find myself too lazy to get up and grab a heavy thesaurus when a just-as-good website is just Alt+Tab away!
Reply
:iconrhiannonoeuvre:
RhiannonOeuvre Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   Writer
OH MY GOD! I never knew readymades existed Spazattackplz Icon #2 - Lari (Ugh no) 

I'm feeling a little disheartened now since I've been working sooooooooooo hard to get my writing up to an 'author' standard. Nevertheless, it's good to know about readymades and how they can damage my writing. I am, indeed, a lazy writer that's breaking out of the habit and writing my first novel that I wish to see published, so I'm learning everything I can while I'm writing it to apply to it. It's my dream to be an author and I'm not letting anything stop me.

*sigh* Anyway, enough rambling. Thanks for your guide Hug It was very eye-opening and I'll work on cutting down on the overused phrases (I love writing 'smirk' lol). I'll have to put it into practice and post something on deviantART ...when I'm not writing my book Sweating a little... 
Reply
:iconhorace-bulregard:
Horace-Bulregard Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Professional General Artist
I like to take readymades and throw a spanner into them. They start out as familiar sentences and the reader starts to go 'oh here we go again' and then you throw something else in there that makes them stop and go 'wait, what?'. Like 'A chill ran down their spine, like a thousand red ants on a bumpy, spine-like slip n' slide', or like 'A rose by any other name is still a trapezoid'. The faces you get when you drop those into normal conversation are just priceless.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Heh. I giggled at the second one. And I would still caution against using that too frequently.
Reply
:iconhorace-bulregard:
Horace-Bulregard Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Professional General Artist
I don't use it often, don't you worry xP
Reply
:iconshadowedlove97:
ShadowedLove97 Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014  Student Writer
1. I definitely struggle with readymades, though more for character descriptions than, say, "actions". Specifically more with hair color heh. I'm guilty of writing "raven-haired" and "blond/blonde" when a character has those types of colored hair. I am definitely trying to work on it though!

2. Haha what advice I would given is already written in the article! All I can think of is to look for them while editing and try to think of something better you can use or ask a friend to help you edit. Repeating some advice I've seen before; coming back and editing your writing a week later or more is often very useful. I can see why; by that point you probably have forgotten what was running through your mind when writing, so you're seeing it through your readers eyes.

3. Onto a more specific topic, I never thought "smirk" conveyed enough emotion. Sure it's a familiar expression, but it's not enough to convey the emotion behind it I think. Even the dictionary definition is more interesting than the word itself and conveys so much more! "smirk - verb - smile in an irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly way". I like the "irritatingly smug" definition there if the character is really prideful. Or maybe "irritatingly conceited". "He smirked" just isn't as strong in my mind.

I also always hated the idioms "as dead as a doornail" or "as dumb as a doornob". Both irritate me, not only because of how cliche they actually are, but because neither of these things are living things. Doornails were never alive, therefor they can never be "dead", and doornobs cannot think, therefor they are not dumb. They don't even have a brain! Luckily they aren't used as much, but sometimes I still see them used and it just ruins the mood completely for me.

4. Considering I'm someone who loves reading fanfics (I also write them heh), I've read a fair share of bad ones (you usually have to search deep to find the good ones). Just not editing in general before posting writing somewhere I definitely consider lazy. Another one is rushing through your plot too much or deciding to skip ahead to a certain time in a chapter by just writing "one hour later" or something. You could at least write one simple transition sentence. "The ride was long and dull as the car zoomed on by, what was only really a few hours feeling much more like a few days" for example (I'm pretty sure I used a readymade in there but I don't feel like trying to think of something better). I understand the feeling of not wanting to bore yourself or the reader by writing something as bland as a car ride, but at least add a transitioning sentence that gives us some idea what had happened and how long it took.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Good points all! Thanks for a long comment. "dead as a doornail" is rather annoying.
Reply
:icondragoeniex:
dragoeniex Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
Hm. I think a work can still handle a "smirk" or too. Just make sure it's justified by the situation. It's an expression, like a smile or a frown.

I do like the tips and examples of pretty much everything else you put in here, though. It's a helpful article. And suddenly, I realize "chills down (the) spine" may have crept into one of my more recent works. Whoops.

Thanks for posting!
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Thanks for commenting!
Reply
:icongdeyke:
GDeyke Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014   Writer
"The battle was brief but bloody."

I'm actually really sad about that one, because I think it's a great sentence. It's got the repeated sounds, the symmetrical rhythm, an important word on every stress, etc. etc., and most importantly it provides an alternative to the dreaded five-page blow-by-blow account of who hits whom in which vital organ using what sort of weapon. But now that I've realize how ridiculously overdone it is I'm not willing to ever use it.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Nice point. It's a good example of something that used to be fresh but became tired from overuse.
Reply
:iconuberchimerism:
UberChimerism Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I think Stephenie Meyer turned "chagrin" into a readymade...
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Maybe, although I see that word used too much all over the place.
Reply
:icontahno:
Tahno Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Great article, I try to avoid using readymades. However, sometimes the temptation is to strong.  :ashamed:
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
I feel it too! Thanks for commenting.
Reply
:iconhuggleduck:
Huggleduck Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you for posting this; I am trying to look for ways to reword readymades and not stick to archetypes at the moment so this will come in handy. Words and phrases I personally find irritating are 'raven-haired' and 'the blonde' and the metaphor of 'orbs' to describe eyes because of their overuse. Thanks again :)
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
All good examples of bad writing!
Reply
:iconalexnart:
alexnart Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Thank you so much for this article! None of this had occurred to me at all and I hadn't thought of them as being lazy. I'm very new to writing but want to improve, so you've been incredibly helpful. :)
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Thanks for saying so!
Reply
:iconeuxiom:
Euxiom Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Hm, never heard of this concept before but makes sense. To be honest, it makes me a little sad that so many things have been overdone as to be detestable by people. :no: I have a feeling even if everybody was able to get the absolute best education for writing, these cliches and overdone phrases/words would still be around. :lol:
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Indeed. And we'd create new ones. What someone 50 years ago considered an overused readymade we might not today ("the bee's knees", for example).
Reply
:iconeuxiom:
Euxiom Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Oh golly, there's one my mom still uses. :giggle: Ah well, even with readymades plauging writing, there's still tons of amazing stuff made, and that will be made. :) We can take heart in that, I suppose.
Reply
:iconvestiphile:
Vestiphile Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014   Digital Artist
Hmmm...this isn't terrible advice, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a ZERO TOLERANCE rule (e.g. OMG WRITER GUYZ, NEVER EVER USE ADVERBS EVER). Clichés are the equivalent of a shared linguistic experience--something simply understood and simply communicated. If each of us all took our lists of what we considered "readymades" and absolutely agreed to eliminate them altogether, our language would be in quite a sorry state. While I'll agree that they shouldn't be the beams and struts of colorful writing, they're also not something to be carved out of the writing lexicon.

And at the risk of being a bit snarky here, I find it funny that Orwell is mentioned in the same thread actively persuading people to eliminate words or phrases due to being deemed unnecessary or undesirable...the writers of the INGSOC Newspeak Dictionary would see this idea as doubleplusgood.

You can certainly strive to write something COMPLETELY original ("Hidjor taa doplaplex adjunmakate balamba..."), but in your desperation to write something no one's ever read before, you can also eradicate the aim of communicating anything of meaning to your audience.


Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
I don't think it has that tone above. And it's important to everyone to recognize that sort of writing, so that if they use it, it's because it's the best option, not only the easiest.

Orwell knew exactly what he was talking about. He rails against that debasement of language (it's not like the book is positive toward Newspeak).

That last bit's not really worthy of a reponse.
Reply
:iconvestiphile:
Vestiphile Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014   Digital Artist
I didn't mean to say you took that tone--I was simply providing an addendum to your message. (And then after that I was kind of being snarky, which wasn't really necessary and obviously confused my purpose. Apologies.)

I wasn't criticizing Orwell; I was saying that I found his invocation odd coming from an essay encouraging people to reduce their choices of expression based on how often they'd seen those particular phrases or descriptors in the past. (Kind of an extreme way of making your writing advice into a straw-man, which--again--apologies.)

Your last snipe (which I reasonably deserved for putting you on the defensive) totally dismisses the point I was making--which was meant to caution readers not to take your otherwise valuable writing advice to the extreme. By your own admission, you consider the verb "smirk" a readymade. Bringing this back to my original issue, restated: if we took the list of words and phrases you consider "readymades" and added these to the list of words and phrases each other person considers "readymades", we'd find our language to be missing a lot of valuable terms.

Summed one more time with my attitude placed in check: your point in encouraging people to stretch their limbs a bit more in creating expressive imagery is well-taken, with the caveat that language is a shared experience. Things we consider "cliché" become cliché because they work.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
*sigh*

When writing the article, I thought about including just such a caveat, but it was already pretty lengthy and I didn't want to muddle matters by not including a full discussion of when you might want to use such readymades. You'll note that in the point about dialogue I said there might be times to use readymades rightly, which I thought sufficient to suggest that my advice didn't advocate wholesale removal of anything familiar. You might also note that in the "most important" point I didn't say that a reader should ask himself "is what I wrote on a giant list of no-nos?"

Obviously, though, that wasn't sufficient, because numerous people in varying degrees of helpfulness and snark made their only comment on the above "well you shouldn't NEVER use these", which is again, something I didn't say or even imply. If before you had made your comment you had read any others you would have found me saying "it's most important to recognize overly familiar language, so that if you use it you do it intentionally, not out of laziness" over and over again. When I got to your comment, I was just tired of repeating myself to people who felt the need to (as you say) straw-man my argument to an extreme and then find fault with that extreme.

If you'll let me extend your words in a turn-around, cliches become cliches not because they work, but because they work AND are overused. To me, "smirk" is like a song on the radio that I didn't mind the first time I heard it, but after its one-hit-wonder summer of being played everywhere, makes me grind my teeth together in annoyance.* That's a readymade, and they are almost always a poor choice when writing.



*It suddenly occurs that the Top 40 music reference is probably better than the spaghetti image I used in the actual article. If I edit it, in addition to including a disclaimer that says I'm not suggesting a blackout on the use of readymades, I'll probably swap the two. Thanks for the inspiration, I guess.
Reply
:iconvestiphile:
Vestiphile Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   Digital Artist
Sincerely, man, your patience is pretty heroic. Sometimes my internet one-upmanship habit gets the better of anything constructive I might've had to say--and like you said, had I read the other comments, I'd have probably found that you already addressed it.

Eventually I came to the realization that the highly visible link to your post would be like a porch light to the club of moths in the community who saw it as a chance to play *gotcha* with an author giving earnest writing advice. My tone pretty much paid my due to join them.

No more belaboring: Sorry for being a dick. :\ Gracefully handled.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
*response
Reply
:icongreendragon-fly:
GreenDragon-Fly Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014  Student General Artist
I agree about most things you say, however I don't think archetypes should be included as a 'ready made'. Archetypes are more than just over used character personalities, they are the idea of a grouping of personalities we observe in life. They will push through no matter what and using them as a base for your character will help them feel more real. Also it will help give an idea of how characters react to each other and why. Now a pure archetype character should be avoided by amateur writers, like if its just a hero and there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, writers should learn how to mix archetypes and give a sense of depth. There are instances where pure archetypes can be used effectively.
For instance, 'The Breakfast Club' has a set of pure archetypes. They generalized what kids you see in school and rammed them in a confined space for several hours and explored the pains of living these archetypal lives. The writer used the full potential of archetypes to it's greatest potential to create this story(whoops, a ready made). 
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:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Oh, above I didn't mean incorporating archetypes, but actually using the words in your prose, like calling your bad boy "bad boy" all the time or having a character stand up and explain that there is a war between good and evil using the phrase "good vs. evil".
Reply
:iconkiwikku:
Kiwikku Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
I use them too much.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Got any plans to change that?
Reply
:iconkiwikku:
Kiwikku Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
:nod:
Reply
:iconakio-stock:
akio-stock Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
"Her eyes flashed with anger" --> I always imagine the eyes actually flashing, like they're little flashlights turning around on the poor girl's head. Can't really take the scene seriously after that!

One that I dislike:
"She shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold" --> I couldn't have guessed it wasn't the cold! Really, all that description and suspense clearly wasn't enough to convey the creepiness of the situation!
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Haha, me neither! I haven't actually seen "nothing to do with the cold" much, but I can see how that would get real old, real fast.
Reply
:iconwandereratheart:
WandererAtHeart Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2014
I don't post my writing here but I'll jump in anyway!
So I recently began writing a rom-com YA novel, typical teen stuff, and so of course there's a "bad boy" but I got so fed up with the typical image that I totally recreated him. Everybody misinterprets him to be the bad boy because he does badly in school (but that's because he stays up all night practicing the saxophone) and he is very antisocial with a generally angry face (because he's forced to be in school when he could be making music). He rides a bike which everyone who hears interprets as motorcycle but it's a bicycle, and so  the misconceptions continue. I have a lot of fun writing his character and getting rid of the readymade archetype of a bad boy.

And because he's supposed to be a fake bad boy the number one word I avoid is smirk because every bad boy ever written about has done it and mine will not!
Seriously though, whenever I read the word I have this concrete image of one specific face smirking that appears every time.
Reply
:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014
Yeah, me too, and it's a horrible image. Good for you for turning an archetype on its head.
Reply
:iconwandereratheart:
WandererAtHeart Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
Haha, thanks :)
Reply
:iconukulelecrazy:
ukulelecrazy Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2014  Student Traditional Artist
I love that he stays up at nights to play the saxophone-- that's cute and so unique :3
Reply
:iconwandereratheart:
WandererAtHeart Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
Haha thanks :) He's still in the works but so far I'm really happy with him
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