We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘The writing is flat.’ The question is, what does that really mean?
Flat writing is where the prose lies dead on the page. Descriptions, characters and stakes are conveyed in such a bland manner that the reader ceases to care. Either the writer lacks the confidence in their writing style to get their ideas across in a way that holds shape, or they need to work on their ability to bring that texture and balance into their manuscript. Flat wordsmithing can disguise itself in many forms, so this is something we all need to be on the lookout for.
Description is the writer’s most powerful tool in translating what they see in their head onto the page. Not only does it breathe life into settings, characters and emotions, it is one area where honing our skills IS A MUST. Flat description often happens when the writer doesn’t strive hard enough to utilize the five senses.
Sensory feedback also comes to us in every breath, movement, sound, and taste. Why should writing be any less dimensional? Tastes, textures, sounds, smells…well anyone who uses this blog regularly knows my descriptive thesaurus collections are all about utilizing these senses in addition to sight. When describing, take advantage of the range of senses. The reward is a much more vivid experience for the reader.
Poor Word Choice
Repeat after me: THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Strong verbs. Accurate modifiers. Stay away from walking fast if you’re really sprinting or lurching, don’t drop a cup of juice when you can have it smash against the floor and spray yellow ropes of liquid across the cupboard.
Always strive to find the strongest, most apt words to describe…while remaining firmly seated in the narrator’s range of knowledge and speech and true to your voice. In other words, if the POV character/narrator is a 10 year old girl living on a farm, she’s not going to sound like a Harvard graduate when describing the world around her.
And while using that thesaurus, remember it needs to be used in moderation. One or two strong descriptors are better than a paragraph of purple prose.
Over Baked Ideas
Cliches. Well-worn descriptions. White as a bone? A rosebud smile? Breaking up with your BF under an umbrella in a rainstorm? Two words: RUN AWAY.
Often the first thing that comes to mind is a well-worn description or something that could border on the cliche. Don’t feel bad about this! I doubt there’s a writer out there who hasn’t penned a cliche during the heat of the first draft. But anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that’s what revision is all about. If you spot something that feels a little too familiar, stretch yourself into brainstorming a new way to get this description across to the reader.
Grammar, Punctuation, Style
I’d say probably 90% of writers have a passionate dislike for these three words. I think of them as a necessary evil, like taxes and politicians. A working knowledge of sentence structure, punctuation and grammar is important. Nothing stops a reader faster than poor wording, run on sentences or bad grammar. And spelling? We’re all guilty of a missed typo now and again, but no manuscript should go without an affectionate rub down via Spell Check.
Some writers use the excuse that rules are ‘made to be broken’ to get out of the tedium of learning P & G. The concept of rule breaking is filled with debate–can we? Should we? Certainly. Done right, the writer can achieve great things. Done wrong, they look like a hack. Bottom line: know grammar and punctuation inside and out before attempting to break a rule and have a good reason for doing so.
To avoid flat writing, be aware of sentence structure. Sentences with little or no variation (all long and unwieldy, or too choppy) can ruin the experience for the reader. The good news on this one is, the more you practice, the more that variation becomes second nature. 🙂
Under-developed Ideas, Characters and General Vagueness.
Know the manuscript. If the writer doesn’t know their characters very well or is a little hazy on what they are doing or feeling, it shows. If the writer tunes out during a passage of writing, you can bet the reader will too. Look for flat places during re-reads and spiff them up through development and better description.
Can you think of other ways the writing can appear flat?
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.