Mar 14 2008

Learning to Write by Retyping

A writing professor at my university suggested that one way to study written rhythm and cadences is to type out someone else’s novel. He says that doing so will help you gain a better sense of style and flow. Maybe. I think you can do better with this technique, though. Instead of retyping someone else’s work, try retyping yours. I think that this will help the aspiring novelist uncover several tricky problems.


1. Your characters may sound too much alike. This problem is especially dangerous for pieces with multiple narrators, like Soon I Will Be Invincible.

2. Certain sentences may have looked fine when you wrote them, but look horribly awkward to anyone reading aloud. Readers may stumble over phrases that have been accidentally repeated or are stylistically inconsistent.

3. You may realize that a certain character’s voice tends to shift wildly for no apparent reason (except how you were feeling when you wrote the chapters).

4. You may realize that characters repeatedly perform the same action. For example, Dan Brown’s characters furl their brows often, mine shrug and SIWBI‘s characters whine like angsty teenagers.

5. You may uncover ridiculously obscure plot-holes. For example, I read a review of SIWBI that criticized the book for saying on one page that a character stood up and then saying a page later that he stood up again. Like 99% of SIWBI readers, I didn’t notice that mistake, but you can be sure that anyone that read so closely will mention it to his friends.

6. You may discover that your writing has an unintended double meaning. To offer one example, take this. “The President cursed silently. This was the second time his lackey had leaked information to the press. It was time to terminate him.” The word “terminate” is almost certainly bad writing. The President only wants one thing there, either to have the lackey fired or killed. But the word “terminate” could mean either. The author shouldn’t be ambiguous unless the character is and, even then, ambiguity is dangerous and usually overrated.

(I can think of one main example of ambiguity in Superhero Nation, but our editor generally discourages it. Jacob says “Unfortunately, I have to terminate you” immediately before pushing Hobbes into a vat of acid. I think it works better in this case because the ambiguity is resolved in the reader’s mind pretty quickly. And, secondarily, readers usually give supervillains more linguistic latitude. I call that the Dr. Doom Rule.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Learning to Write by Retyping”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 Oct 2008 at 3:18 am

    Hehe, for number four, mine always “resist the urge/temptation”. Like, “I resisted the urge to roll my eyes/groan”. “She tried to resist the nagging temptation to slap him”.

  2. Cadet Davison 20 Oct 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Don’t make me shrug at you.

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