Transcription Errors – Why You Want to Do Your Own Writing Rather than Recycling Someone Else’s


Readers don’t come to us for a collage of what we’ve read elsewhere. It bores them.

Recycled writing includes cliches and stereotypes, including cliched and stereotyped plots. You also need to avoid something between: behaviors or appearances whose description has been exaggerated until it has lost contact with reality. Like photocopying a photocopy, each recycle makes it worse.

Take “turning green” to describe someone nauseated, ready to vomit. Some writers will describe people turning “pea green” with illness.

Have you ever seen anyone turn shamrock color? Of course not! They can’t. Can not.

Probably some nineteenth century writer described chlorosis, chronic anemia, where the skin is so pale that it’s faintly greenish contrasted with healthy skin. Someone recycled this as so pale with temporary illness as to be vaguely greenish. Next copy, the green became notable, and associated with nausea. Finally we end up with people who turn grass-color before running away to vomit.

At no time since the original has anyone checked in with reality, including the editors letting this stuff go by in pot-boiler fiction. This is third-rate writing, except maybe in humor. We assume anyone taking the trouble to stop here wants to be the best writer possible.

Don’t recycle what you’ve read.

Don’t borrow cliche phrases and stereotypical characters, any of that sort of thing. Start with reality, and find your own way to say it. Make the writing your own.

Always use your own physical experience as a touchstone for writing. This means you need to pay attention intently to the world around you.

At some time you or someone you know has been dog-sick. Was there actually any way to tell in advance? Did your internal warning match symptoms from med texts (cribbed by other writers trying to avoid pea-green) or did you fail to salivate, close your eyes, and the rest of that supposed reality? (Questioning authorities is a whole other blog.) Maybe the only authentic warning to an onlooker is an expression of surprise or distress and that hand movement to cover the mouth.

This means a writer needs to pay attention to life and experiences, small as well as showy. Writing gives us the greatest gift this way: our lives, vivid, juicy, and constantly valuable, truly lived rather than sleepwalking through them.

That doesn’t mean you have to commit crimes to write about them: you just have to learn to extrapolate. Y’know — imagine. But do your own imagining. Don’t re-use someone else’s.

3 responses »

  1. “Readers don’t come to us for a collage of what we’ve read elsewhere. It bores them.”

    This statement runs counter to observations of buying behavior. Chris Fox, in his book Write To Market, notes that the best way to write a book that will sell is to write a book that closely mimics the bestselling books in that genre.

    Authors who follow that advice seem to sell pretty well, and I’m pretty sure that authors only sell well when they give readers what they want.

    • We’re maybe getting confused here by the multi-purpose word “writing.” I am using it for style, word-choice, how you describe something. Fox is using it to point out popular trends in genre and plot, even characters. These are two different ends of the spectrum. He’s talking about high-level elements, while I’m talking line-editing here.

      Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m not going to advise people to be hacks. I want to encourage people to be good writers, the best they can be. If sales are the only criteria of good writing, then Fifty Shades of Grey is a brilliant masterwork that will resonate down the ages, and Danielle Steele is better than Shakespeare [insert sound of cat having a hairball].

      Really, does any “how to write” book advise you to stuff your novel full of cliches, stereotypes, and recycled imagery? Even Fox?

      There’s also the question of selling to publishers. They buy what they think will sell, not necessarily what the possible readership would like. Sometimes they buy what they like, screw the readers, or they’re trying to force-feed what they think the readers ought to like. I remember a conversation about Harlequin Romances. You would probably class them as the ne plus ultra of romance novels for their steady sales. But the women discussing it (who were regular readers) talked mainly about all the stuff they didn’t like, starting with the unpleasant heroes. “I like smack ’em,” did not refer to giving them a kiss, but whalloping them for arrogance and dismissiveness. Yet Harlequin built an empire on giving a readership part of what they wanted. It’s kind of like buying stale Twinkies because there isn’t anything better in the store, not because you like them best.

      I think we ought to be making cheesecakes and mango chiffon cakes, not figuring how to make the fresh Twinkies stale.

      Of course, Janet Dailey could have claimed she was just mimicking Norah Roberts’ best-selling writing like Fox advises. Instead, the courts saw it as plagiarism. Another reason to not recycle.

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