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January 23
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Readymades: Hallmarks of Lazy Writing

Thu Jan 23, 2014, 1:31 PM


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:
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!
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!
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
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.
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2014
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.
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!
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... 
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.
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014
Heh. I giggled at the second one. And I would still caution against using that too frequently.
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