We’ve all been to school, right? (I hope we’ve all been to school.) And, likely as not, that’s where we all got the majority of our writing practice. From our first sentences to our final papers, we learned about everything from grammar to punctuation to structure to form. And those skills are, like, 97% transferable to fiction writing.
But man, that 3% can really mess up your fiction writing. All those rules that make academic writing good can make creative writing bad for one very obvious reason: nobody talks like that in real life. Nobody. Not Tom Hiddleston, not the Queen of England, and definitely not your sixteen-year-old protagonist. The impeccable word choices, the literary allusions, the profusion of semicolons—even the nerdiest of word nerds isn’t that good.
Academic writing aims to impress with its ability to compact information into a neat, tidy, and very wordy package. Fiction writing is a little more down-to-earth; it’s based more on how people actually talk and act. If you write fiction the same way that you write your senior thesis, your novel’s going to sound stiff and stuffy.
Here are five habits that you picked up in your English class that don’t belong in your novel:
- Never using the same word twice. Varying your word choices is good, but using every synonym you can think of to avoid repeating words can make your writing seem clunky and more than a little pretentious.If you want to say aggressive, there’s no need to subsequently call a character belligerent, bellicose, pugnacious, and truculent. It’s okay to repeat words every now and then.
- Using big, fancy words. The precise shades of meaning that those rare, five-syllable words can give an argument are great for a big paper, but does anyone really say callipygian these days? (Just me, then?) If you wouldn’t hear it in an everyday conversation, maybe think twice about including it.
- Never using contractions. Is contracting everything appropriate for an academic paper? No. Obviously not. But in fiction, it’s not just appropriate, it’s downright necessary. Can you imagine speaking without contractions? It would be very weird—and, let us be honest, nobody has the time or patience to write out every individual word. Go ahead and smush ’em together.
- Using ***flawless grammar. The thought of deliberately breaking grammatical rules is enough to make me feel a bit faint, but it’s got to be done. Bad grammar abounds in the everyday world. The sign at the express line is going to say “twelve items or less” when we all know that it should really be “twelve items or fewer,” and if your fictional grocery store has a sign reading “twelve items or fewer,” that’s just…weird.
- Never using slang. Use slang. Use fillers like “um,” “well,” and “like.” Written speech should be as natural and easy as spoken speech, and if you’d say it in real life, there’s a good chance that your characters would say it, too.
This isn’t to say that academic writing is bad; of course it isn’t. But it’s a beast of a different kind, and the rules that make it so great don’t necessarily apply to other kinds of writing. Don’t let the good habits of one have a negative influence on the other.
What it all boils down to is that fiction should be accessible. Ask yourself, would a real person talk like this? Think like this? Choose these words and these grammar patterns? If the answer is no, don’t do it.
Got any other school rules that ought to be broken?