Writing fashion changes, like the fashion in Easter Bonnets
by Anne R. Allen
Fashion. It sounds frivolous, but it has serious effects on us all.
Right now, women are getting beard-burn from kissing men who sport the fashionable romantic-hero three-day stubble. And mothers are stifling their disappointment when their golden-haired boys get the fashion-victim shaved-sides hairdo that makes them look like a cross between Kim Jong Un and the Last of the Mohicans.
And have pity on the people over 40 who are hunched over their computers trying to decipher text from the latest fashion in web design: a tiny, palest-gray font on a white background.
Alas, fashion favors the young.
Writing fashion is hard on us too. Fashion dictates a good deal of what gets published these days, and it’s constantly changing. Write like Thackery, Kipling, or Walter Scott and you’re unlikely to find a publisher or an audience. That’s because writing fashions have radically changed in the last two hundred years, even though the language itself has not.
The truth is that a great many of the “rules” that writers learn in workshops, critique groups, and classes are not actual rules of the English language. They may not even represent correct grammar. But they’re the “way we do things now.”
In other words: They’re what’s in fashion.
Why Follow Fashion?
If you read a lot of classics and not much contemporary fiction, you may not realize how many changes have transpired in fiction writing in the past few decades.
Writing has become leaner and less descriptive. Maybe we can blame Elmore Leonard, who wrote in his Ten Rules for Writing in 2007, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
This doesn’t mean that classic books are “wrong,” but it does mean that your writing will seem old-fashioned if you follow an older, more lush, descriptive style.
This can work FOR you if you’re writing epic fantasy (hello, George R.R. Martin) or historical fiction, but it won’t please readers who expect a contemporary style.
Submitting a manuscript that’s written in an older style is like showing up to a job interview wearing a bustle or doublet and hose. It can make an impact, but not always in a good way.
A brilliant story may be rejected because the style is unfashionable. Is that unfair? Probably. But business isn’t always fair. Alas, publishers only acquire stuff they think will sell, and an old-fashioned style doesn’t always jump off the shelves.
You’ll notice the difference in writing fashion if you read a bunch of contemporary novels and then pick up a classic.
I did this recently with a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers stories. Almost every line of dialogue had a tag that included a dreaded adverb.
“I’ll have a champagne cocktail, said Montague Egg urbanely.”
Obviously, adverbs were not as dreaded in the 1920s.
Fashion in dialogue tags has changed in the past few decades. I had a crash course in this from my UK publisher. I was asked to change about 50% of the tags in my novel The Best Revenge.
Here are three ways a writer often identifies the speaker in dialogue.
1) “Never let them see you sweat,” Serena advised the visibly nervous lacrosse team.
2) “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Serena removed her damp, aromatic socks while addressing the team.
3) “Team? I don’t know about any team,” I sweated as I blocked the door to the dungeon where Serena had incarcerated the lacrosse players.
#1 and #2 are both correct. But #3, not so much. (Not just because it’s not nice to lock lacrosse players in a dungeon. 🙂 ) But people can’t sweat words.
However, #2 is more fashionable in contemporary fiction. Writing fashion tells us to drop the dialogue tag altogether and identify the speaker by adding action. Yes, I know that can sometimes lead to reader confusion, so don’t do it so often it leaves readers scratching their heads.
Italics—for Emphasis or Inner Monologue?
The use of italics provides a similar dilemma. The fashion for use of italics is changing.
Traditionally, italics were only used for emphasis. But in a lot of contemporary fiction, italics indicate inner monologue. This is a convention that first appeared in “pulp” fiction, but it has become fashionable in YA fiction.
Both 1 and 2 below are correct.
1) Serena opened the door and showed me a tiny, windowless room. With sudden force, she shoved me inside and slammed the door shut. I’m going to die in this dungeon. There is no way out. That woman is out of her mind.
2) Serena opened the door and showed me a tiny, windowless room. With sudden force, she shoved me inside and slammed the door shut. I was going to die in this dungeon. There was no way out. That woman was out of her mind.
Here we’re looking at writing fashion in flux. You can choose the more fashionable “I’m going to die here. There is no way out” or “There was no way out,” depending on your audience.
But reserving italics for emphasis is still correct. Here’s what The Chicago Manual of Style had to say about it: “you have several options, among which is the option to use regular text for thought, reserving italics for emphasis.” (That would be example #2.)
Eliminating “That” “Just” “Then” and Other “Unnecessary Words”
This one used to drive my English professor mother batty. Writing fashion tells us to eliminate the word “that” whenever possible.
1) “We never told the team that it’s not wise to visit Aunt Serena after sunset.”
2) “We never told the team it’s not wise to visit Aunt Serena after sunset.”
These are both right. Fashion would say #2 is better without the “that”. But my old-school mom would say #1 has more clarity.
1) “I’ll just be a minute,” Serena said.
2) “I’ll be a minute,” Serena said.
Is the word “just” needed? Writing fashion would say no. But a lot of readers would find “just” changes the meaning from “I’ll be ready asap” to “this will take a little time.”
1) “I found myself staring into Serena’s eyes, then realized they were flashing red.”
2) “I found myself staring into Serena’s eyes and realized they were flashing red.”
Writing fashion says #2 is better. But #1 shows a subtle difference. It shows the passage of time: looking first, then seeing red a moment later. See what I did there? That’s why I prefer #1.
Hating on Adverbs and Adjectives
1) Serena waved happily at a bald man who had curly purple hair growing out of his enormous ears.
2) Serena waved at a man who had hair growing out of his ears.
Sorry, fashionable adverb and adjective killers. Those sentences are not identical. Adverbs and adjectives show tone and add information the reader needs, even though they’re unfashionable. So you have my permission to use them. 😊 Discretely, of course. But don’t become a fashion victim here.
It does make sense to do a search for “ly” words when you’re editing. You’ll probably find some adverbs you don’t need. But they’re not the enemy, unless you’re, like, super trendy.
Short, Uncomplicated Prose.
I have little elves in a plug-in for my WordPress blog here who tell me the “readability” score for each post. I get dinged for sentences and paragraphs that are too long, words of more than two syllables, passive voice, and a lack of “transition words” like “but” and “however.”. (For more on the SEO elves, see my post on Yoast SEO Secrets)
This is because Google has decreed that prose aimed at an 8th grade reading level or lower is more likely to make it to that all important SERP (Search Engine Results Page.)
Grade level is judged according to the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale.
So what does this mean for fiction writers? After all, you’re not writing novels to please the Google elves.
But it does mean that writing at an 8th Grade level or below is in fashion.
It’s up to you whether to follow the fashion, of course. But if your readers also spend a lot of time online, they’re going to be annoyed by long sentences, a lack of white space, and those twenty-dollar words
This has been a writing fashion trend since Strunk and White came out with The Elements of Style a hundred years ago. As they said, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” They’d tell you to say “hide” and “clarify” instead of “obfuscate” or “elucidate.”
But that’s not always so much fun.
Point of View
There was a time when all novels were told from an omniscient or storyteller’s point of view. (O Best Beloved 🙂 )
Now, a third person point of view is considered standard in most genres, and most novels don’t have more than a handful of point-of-view characters.
Omniscient POV gives a historical or epic feel, so it’s still used in high fantasy. And some contemporary literary fiction has multiple POV characters—some using first and some using third.
These days, a first person POV is fashionable in YA and MG fiction. It’s also pretty de rigueur in chick lit.
Then there’s “deep” third person point of view, which is basically a first person point of view with different pronouns. “Deep” is very trendy right now.
So should you follow writing fashion?
If you’re a new writer trying to break into traditional publishing, yes, being fashionable is more likely to land you an agent and a contract.
For everybody else—I say it’s up to you how trendy you think your readers are. Because in the end, it comes down to what writing fashion makes your readers most comfortable.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) April 04, 2021
What about you, scriveners? What are some of the other writing fashions that have changed in the past few decades? Do you notice when a book doesn’t follow the current fashion? Does it stop you when you’re reading? Which writing fashion trend do think you’ll never follow? What are some writing fashion trends that have changed how you write?
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