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.
Clichés - stale images or metaphors: "beauty is skin deep", "baptism by fire", "bad blood", etc.
Archetypes - common, flat characters or motivations: "prodigal son", "soldier who drinks to forget", "good vs. evil", etc.
Plug-and-Play Phrases - wordy, inelegant constructions: "the fact of the matter is that", "the bottom line here is", "plays a role in", etc.
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?
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", a well-known essay on language use
Seven Rules for Avoiding Wordiness (pdf), a guide with lots of good examples
"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:
Do you struggle with readymades? Try going back to a recent prose piece—can you identify any readymades?
Are there any tips you use to avoid using readymades on your own that you'd like to share?
We've learned that I hate "smirk". Are there any readymades you find particularly terrible?
What other types of lazy writing have you encountered?