Playfulness in Writing: A Guest Blog From Kate Forsyth

by |July 24, 2013

We’re so excited to be hosting award-winning novelist Kate Forsyth on the blog for a series of contributions on books and writing.

Here’s her first installment, on the art of writing. Stay tuned for more!

I read a lot. I read for my own selfish pleasure, and I read for work. I read stories submitted to me by my students. I read manuscripts by aspiring writers hoping I’ll help them write better. I read books which are just not quite good enough to be published, to see if I can help diagnose what’s wrong with them.

I dissect stories for a living. Many of these manuscripts I read share the same flaws – poor structuring, slow pace, a slack narrative thread. However, by far the most common mistake that I am finding in recent years is a lack of pizzazz. A lack of playfulness.

Everybody is writing the same. Sentences are short. Emotions are deadened. Descriptive passages are pared back to the bone – or missing altogether. I feel like I’m floating in a sensory deprivation tank. Figurative language has been abandoned, there’s no alteration in pace or rhythm, no sense of lyricism, no humour, no whimsy, no veering out of control, no poetry.

Bad Papa?

I blame Ernest Hemingway. His terse minimalist style was widely copied by other American writers such as Elmore Leonard and Chuck Palahniuk, and is now widely considered the epitome of good writing.  Creative writing books and courses teach the same set of rules as if they are imperatives.

Use short sentences.

Cut out all adjectives.

Never use a dialogue tag apart from said. (i.e your characters should never whisper, or moan, or screech, or whimper, or groan, or shriek.)

Never use an adverb. (No softly, no sweetly, no bitterly, no bleakly.)

Do not describe places.

Do not describe people.

Do not describe emotion.

In the hands of a gifted writer like Hemingway or Leonard, this spare, simple style can be very powerful. However, if over-used, it can led to a story of unvarying beigeness, a bass note endlessly repeated, with no melody or counterpoint.

After a while, it gets very boring. I try and encourage my writing students to be a little more adventurous. To take risks and break rules and play with language. I want them to experiment with rhythm and rhyme, and simile and symbol, and alliteration and assonance, and all the other wonderful patterns of language. I want them to listen to the sounds of words, and how they can clink together like stones, or susurrate like silk.

I want them to read poetry, and listen to music, and look at the world with wide-open eyes and ears and skin. I want them to be bold and surprising and impish and audacious. I want to snort out loud with laughter and blink away a mist of tears. I want the whiff of gunpowder in their words.

Am I the only one who is growing weary with minimalist writing, all modern beige and mousy bland?


Kate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of more than twenty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both children and adults. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 25 Novelists, coming in at No 22, just after Peter Carey. She has been called one of ‘the finest writers of this generation”, and “quite possibly … one of the best story tellers of our modern age.’

Click here to go to Kate Forsyth’s author page on Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

Follow Andrew: Twitter


  • July 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    This is completely opposite to all the advice I got in a class at uni. The lecturer tried to stamp out all description! I love this article.

  • July 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    This is completely opposite to all the advice I got in a class at uni. The lecturer tried to stamp out all description! I love this article.

  • July 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    I love that you said these are okay. I have been told to not use adverbs and not use description. I love using tags other than said. Thanks for the excellent advice. I aim to ary my writing as much as I can.

  • July 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Three enthusiastic cheers for the adventurous wordsmith who wields their pen as deftly as Chuck Norris wields num-chucks. Ban beige, I cry.

  • July 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Refreshing to hear it!

  • Catherine

    July 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Here here, Kate! Hoo blloody ray for whimsy, poetry and description! The “show, don’t tell” school of modern prose writing caters for short attention spans, not readers who enjoy immersion into the created world.

  • Ruth

    July 25, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

  • July 25, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Reblogged this on bernadette rowley and commented:
    I’m not sure I 100% agree with Kate on all these points but it is an interesting point of view. Thanks to Booktopia for sharing Kate’s words with us. Hope you enjoyed it.

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