Updated: Feb 4
There’s a term in engineering called jerk. No, it doesn’t describe certain people in your life you wish would go away. As it turns out,
Change in velocity creates acceleration.
Change in acceleration creates jerk.
If you accelerate or decelerate unevenly while driving a vehicle, your passengers will feel jerked around. Don’t jerk your passengers. Don’t jerk your readers either, or they’ll get out of your stories and walk home.
Another engineering term that applies to writing is momentum. Momentum is “mass times velocity.” If your story is meaty and rich (meaning it has “mass”) keep the story moving smoothly because sudden changes momentum also creates jerk.
What are characteristics of smooth writing?
Sentences arranged in a logical sequence.
Events arranged in a logical, sequential order
Avoid extra words (such as “nearly,” “about,” and “almost,” and all “ly” words)
There are hundreds of rules. How about this one:
A good short story with one extra word is a bad short story.
I think of that notion every time I write anything, even during my day job when I'm writing procedures and reports as an engineer. How us writers love extra words!
Only one kind of good sentence
Maybe this will help simplify things. I’ve heard there should be only one kind of sentence in every story ever written. What kind of sentence is that? It is,
A sentence that forwards the story to the next sentence.
Have you heard the phrase, “He swept me off my feet”? That's the central job of the writer—to get your readers swept away from life and lost inside your story. That doesn't sound as pretty as, "He shoved me off my feet."
Imagine describing a unique and glorious foreign world. All that description must have something to do with the story or you’re wasting your readers’ time. If every fifth leaf on the trees is red, then those red leaves better be important.
If you read your work aloud in front of an audience, you’ll know instantly where sentences don’t flow smoothly. Readers should never have to go back and re-read a sentence.
Examples of slippery smooth writing
I provide three examples of smooth writing that flow like honey and taste just as sweet. All three are wordy, yet are written so well I love to read them. They’re like stories your favorite uncle or grandma tells you at the end of the day. Our task is to understand why these excerpts are wonderful.
Miguel de Cervantes
And so, let it be said that this aforementioned gentleman spent his times of leisure—which meant most of the year—reading books of chivalry with so much devotion and enthusiasm that he forgot almost completely about the hunt and even about the administration of his estate; and in his rash curiosity and folly he went so far as to sell acres of arable land in order to buy books of chivalry to read, and he brought as many of them as he could into his house; and he thought none was as fine as those composed by the worthy Feliciano de Silva, because the clarity of his prose and complexity of his language seemed to him more valuable than pearls, in particular when he read the declarations and missives of love, where he would often find written:
The reason for the unreason to which my reason turns so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of thy beauty....
With these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind, and he spent sleepless nights trying to understand them and extract their meaning, which Aristotle himself, if he came back to life for only that purpose, would not have been able to decipher or understand.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
He listened some more; then he come tiptoeing down and stood right between us; we could a touched him, nearly. Well, likely it was minutes and minutes that there warn’t a sound, and we all there so close together. There was a place on my ankle that got to itching, but I dasn’t scratch it; and then my ear begun to itch; and next my back, right between my shoulders. Seemed like I’d die if I couldn’t scratch. Well, I’ve noticed that thing plenty times since. If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t sleepy—if you are anywheres where it won’t do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places.
Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights— do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not.
Can you feel how those excerpts contribute—or at least could contribute—to the tone, scene, theme, and motive of a rich story? Are they compelling? Are the characters deeply focused on what matters to them the most?
Six common rules of fiction
Below are six rules you’ve probably read a hundred times:
Don’t use excessively big words
Keep paragraphs short
Eliminate fluff words
Trim the fat
Yet, don’t the three passages above break all of these rules? The passages come from immensely famous novels, one of which has been famous for hundreds of years ago. Maybe the seventh rule of writing fiction should be:
Obey the six rules unless your writing
is slippery, readable, and compelling.
What is slippery writing?
Slippery writing is like riding in a smooth, quiet car that is neither turning left or right or speeding up or slowing down. It is a restful, pleasurable, soothing experience that calms the mind and stimulates thought.
Reread the three excerpts above, but this time keep your eyes moving at a constant pace. You’ll find that, whatever your reading speed, you’ll be able to read along at your own rate.
It is as if the authors—intentionally or not—filled in or took away words until the reader could read at a constant rate. This causes the reader to, over a period of time, forget that he or she is reading altogether and become lulled into a literary trance controlled entirely by the skilled author.
The text of your stories must be slippery enough for the reader to be carried away to a far off place without having to re-read a passage. That is, if you want to be a successful, famous author.