In 2001 Elmore Leonard gave the literary world ten rules of writing and then one rule to sum them up (the writer’s equivalent of One Ring to Rule Us All). The one rule that (should) bind us is: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
You might not completely grasp the importance of this rule until you come across a book that will make you groan out loud with its pointless pyrotechnics. Then you’ll get it: those long pretty sentences that are full of abstractions and nice little balancing acts in language that, nevertheless, do NOTHING to advance the plot or character or setting or any other worthwhile objective that fiction writing might reasonably expect from language.
In the novel I’m writing at present, there are two traders, and they have a code: “Beautiful or useful.” A thing must be one or the other, else you leave it by the road. That, however, is not the writer’s code. Beautiful AND useful. In a pinch, just useful. That’s it, friends. Does the language serve a purpose? If you’re very clever, you might even find a way for it to serve two. If it can serve two and be beautiful, you’ve found the pot of gold. If it serves no purpose whatsoever but really does glitter nicely in the sunlight… sorry – out it goes.
Glittery writing tends to call attention to itself. It forgets all about the story and says, “Here, watch this trick.” Which runs directly counter to Leonard’s additional advice: “It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” A story is a fictional dream that readers want to lose themselves in, without ever being reminded of the writer. If he’s in the background waving furiously and saying, “Hey, look at me!” the readers wake up.
I have nothing against beautiful language—but pretty writing that is pointless really has no place in a story. It’s a hard truth to hear, but it’s good advice for writers.