What TV Can Teach You About Lazy Writing

The negativity inherent in the title of this article definitely captured our attention. After we read it, we felt that it would attract that of our visitors as well.

Bottom line: Yes, the writer of this article dishes on TV writing pretty well. But what she says is true. And what she recommends for writers is, well, absolutely on the proverbial money. (Yeah, using that old phrase was a fine example of “lazy writing.” But, well, you know….)

by Noelle Sterne

As a writers, you are sensitive to words. After all, they’re your currency. Even when you’re taking a break to watch TV, you may unconsciously be evaluating—with disdain or grudging admiration—the words you encounter. Developing sensitivity for lazy language can help you assuage any lingering guilt for taking breaks, especially with TV shows.

Admittedly a rationale for marathon TV watching, I discovered that television shows can teach valuable lessons in our writing, especially to spot those standard scripted sentences like “I want my lawyer,” “Crash cart, STAT,” and “We need to talk.” Once we recognize the penchant for too-easy language, we can learn from and avoid it in our writing.

Here I describe two types of lazy language and suggest lessons we can learn from them and remedies to apply in your own work.

Explicit, Ethan!

In an episode of “Raising the Bar,” a (belated) TV series about public defenders, a lawyer defends elderly twin brothers who have illegally cashed a deceased friend’s Social Security check. Instead of acknowledging the seriousness of their case and listening attentively, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.

One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, “Doc, just take my underwear.” The other brother shouts, “No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier.”

Lesson: He’s right. Specific is also, well, more specific. How can you sharpen your language?

Remedy: Say you’re writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You’ve supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced to rob a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, “Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door.”

Given Jeffrey’s poor circumstances in a freezing Chicago night and his motive for his choice of robbery, the story is enlivened and our sympathies deepened when we know what kind of jacket he pulled on. His personal situation contrasts radically with what he’s robbing: “Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door.” Or, better: “Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door.”

One Sentence Fits All

Today’s trendy colloquialisms show up in many television shows. A ubiquitous offender I’ve heard on almost every primetime show is a question with particularly annoying tortured syntax.

One example: In a series of TV movies adapted from Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mystery novels, a Los Angeles homicide cop fired for drinking becomes sheriff of a small New England town. With recurring regulars and often absorbing plots, at some point almost every character asks another that same question….

Read it all at thewritepractice.com

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