Writing smells

Writing process

I am of the opinion that skills from one discipline can be very valuable for other disciplines. For instance, knowing the basics of psychology helps with software development. I also believe there are valuable insights from software development that apply to writing. One such insight is writing smells.

Writing smells

In software, there is a concept called code smells, introduced by Martin Fowler in his famous book about refactoring – well, famous to software developers. Sometimes, when you’re working on code, you can just feel something is wrong. An experienced developer can look at a section of code, and figure out what ‘smells’ about it. More importantly, they can fix it.

The same is true of writing, I believe. Writing sometimes smells. Something is wrong, but what is it? Recognizing the writing smells, and knowing what to do, separates the layman from the author.

So, let’s have a look at some smells and how to deal with them.


A smell that concerns style, which is relatively easy to spot, is the ‘duplication’ smell. It exists in software as well. You’re looking over your writing, and suddenly you see the same word two or more times, close together. The more exotic the word, the stranger it looks. An example:

Jack walked through the detritus. The detritus looked old. He could not imagine what cataclysmic event had dumped all the detritus here.

That smells bad, doesn’t it? It really needs to be rewritten Use a thesaurus, or rewrite it so you don’t need the duplication. This duplication is also a signal that your not showing enough detail. Try to describe the duplicated word instead of using it:

Jack walked through the detritus. It looked old. He could not imagine what cataclysmic event had dumped the boulders and broken trees here.

Telling instead of showing

Already hinted at above, the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. If you do it wrong, your writing will smell of telling. An example:

William stared at his father. He felt very angry.

He said, “I hate you.”

Telling the reader somebody is angry isn’t good enough. You need to show them. When I’m making this mistake, my writing feels flat, and unemotional. As a reader you feel outside of the story. Rewrite this so it shows you what is happening:

William tried to stare his father down. He clenched his fists. His heart pounded in his chest.

I hate you,” he screamed in his face, spit flying.

And more…

I handled only two smells here. There are more – many, many more. The longer I think about it, the more pop into mind. I have to write a very long post, or split it up. Since I’m currently in bed with the aftermath of the flu, I’ll shelf the rest for now and come back to them in future posts.

Start by thinking about the ones above. Maybe you can think of a couple more by yourself.

Happy writing.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands