Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

An old-fashioned feel?

If you’re an older writer – or sometimes when English isn’t your first language – everything you write can seem to you to be faultless, flawless, and the grammar perfect. But others complain it seems to come from another age – it’s so stiff and careful. Times move so fast; they may be right. Perhaps you are indeed writing out of another slower, calmer age to readers who are so rushed and hungry for plot they don’t have time to work out what a long sentence means. They take no notice of subordinate clauses – they’re racing to finish a sentence before the train gets to the station, or it’s time to pick up the children from the minder. They’re not bad readers, and are just as hungry for information and understanding as they ever were: but they’re just in a hurry. It’s easy enough to oblige them, and may even be sensible if you are at all sensitive to the ‘okay but old-fashioned’ complaint.

Three easy steps:

1) Relax your prose. Write he’d not he had, can’t not can not, wouldn’t not would not. Spread you’re apostrophes around like manna, tokens of immediacy and acceptance.

2) Go through your text and delete every present participle, all the ing verbs. Be precise in your timing. Do not have two things going on at the same time. They seldom are: old fashioned writers do not have the same nose for exactitude as contemporary writers. Do not write ‘Crossing the room, she pulled the curtains’. Write what actually happened: ‘She walked across the room. Then she pulled the curtains.’ Better –  ‘She happened to be looking out the window when she noticed two men advancing across the fields’, than ‘Looking out the window she saw two men advancing across the fields’. Let ‘hoping for better things he took a job in the café’ become ‘He hoped for better things, but took the job in the café’.

Keep it up and then you seem to be writing for today’s world, not yesterday’s. I can’t tell you exactly why, other than that ‘and then, and then,’ in exact order, whether in thought or deed, makes a reader feel the writer knows exactly what is going on, not making a muddled and amateur stab at it.

3) If you can make two sentences out of one, do so. Write short sentences. Use them for effect. Not too many, or you might end up like Lee Child – though that’s not a bad way to end up: you get readers by the million if not much literary credibility. It depends what you want. But two short sentences for every three long ones is a good proportion. Jane Austen tended to do it, by instinct, not because anyone had ever told her how to write.

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