If you’re a regular reader or you looked at my blog’s tagline, you know I’m an archaeologist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, archaeological reports can put you to sleep in no time. They’re verbose, jargon-filled, passively constructed. . . . Seriously, the following paragraph is a real example from a report I co-wrote a few years ago.
White salt-glazed stoneware is the most common ceramic type, with 215 sherds representing 25 percent of the ceramic assemblage. White salt-glazed stoneware was recovered from Features 10, 11, 13, 17, 18, 19, 46, and 47 in Locus 1 and Features 37, 38, 39, 40, 43, and 44 in Locus 2. A few sherds also were recovered from the surface and several machine trenches. Most of the sherds (n=204) are plain, and the identified vessel forms include cups (seven rims, one handle, two bases, one body), bowls (four rims, one small base, one larger base), and a jug or pitcher (one handle) (Figure 116, a-c). Two sherds have an embossed rope design (Figure 116, d); one of these is part of a scalloped plate rim. The remaining nine sherds have “scratch blue” decoration (Figure 116, e-g). One of these sherds is a bowl or saucer rim with a blue swag design, and one is a cup or mug with a blue floral design. Noël Hume (1991:117) notes that “scratch blue” decoration dates mainly to the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and the embossed rope motif on rims tends to be a later design that was produced until the 1770s.
Are you still with me? Now imagine reading 50 scintillating pages like that—or more. This particular report was 288 pages, plus the supporting appendices. It does double duty as a serious paperweight and sleeping aid.
When I started writing fiction, I had to put this behind me. Even I would never finish a novel written like that paragraph above.
It helped that the lessons I’d learned in English courses were still buried in my mind. But I had to excavate them and dust them off. And like muscles that haven’t been used in a while, it was hard to get them back in shape. How bad was it? Well. . . .
When I started Summer at the Crossroads, a lot of paragraphs were nine lines long. And sometimes there were several in a row—in Times New Roman 12 point with standard one-inch margins. That’s not a problem in most academic disciplines. But it will never fly in fiction. An agent could’ve glanced at the first page from across the room and told me the novel wouldn’t have worked at that stage.
On top of that, a lot of my words were looonnnggg. I’m talking 3 or 4 syllables long. Hey, I’m not trying to be Hemingway, so some of those are just fine. But there were way too many of them—especially when some of the characters were talking. If you ever hang out with university faculty, you know that’s typical. But I’m writing novels, not the latest and greatest tome on archaeological theory.
Here’s the kicker, though. I want some of that flavor in Katharine and Madeleine’s stories. Just a hint. After all, they do talk like me to some extent. It’s that academic background. That’s where they work. They’re going to use lots of long words in sentences. In the real world, they’d do it a lot. But I can’t have them do it often, or the books will have an audience of one—me.
So I have to be careful not to overdo it. And so I’m someone who always has to do a special round (or three) of edits in her novels — to lose the academic writing.
How about you? Do you have to write a certain way for your job? Technical writing? An academic field? Business? Does it sneak into your creative writing when you least expect it?