Bad Advice Part One
Writing "rules" are guidelines
Years ago, I presented a workshop to a local Romance Writers of America chapter about “Breaking Rules.” I created the workshop after being subjected to a barrage of “must dos” and “must do nots” before I sold my first book. I’m sure every aspiring writer has heard it all and then some. But what I’ve found since my first book came out in 2006, is that over time, some rules “stick” and more and more authors, agents, even editors will “insist” that we have to follow some-such rule.
There are so many “rules” aspiring writers are encouraged to submit to that I’m splitting this article into two parts. Part One is about the mechanics of writing, and Part Two is about story.
Now, there are certain “rules” that I would encourage all writers to follow — basic grammar rules, such as using periods at the end of a sentence (except when dots … or dashes — would work better), using quotation marks around dialogue (except, maybe, when you have two psychics mentally talking to each other and italics might work best), and spell words correctly (except in the ransom note that your illiterate kidnapper leaves behind.)
Seriously, there are reasons why we have grammar rules and reasons why a good copyeditor is worth their weight in gold. (And my blog doesn’t have a copyeditor, so please forgive any errors.)
One of my favorite writing books is ON WRITING by Stephen King. I listened to it in audio, I’ve read it in print, and I’ve bought copies for young aspiring writers when I speak at schools. Stephen King has long been one of my favorite writers — my first “favorite” book was THE STAND and it remains one of the few books I’ve read twice. His advice is right on the money for virtually everything … except adverbs.
He says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Now, some people have taken that rule to mean that all adverbs are evil and must be cut from your prose. I don’t. Adverbs are a necessary and valuable part of speech that, when used well, elevates your writing and distinguishes you from others. The use (or non-use) of adverbs is part of a writer’s style.
According to Dictionary.com:
ADVERB: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ).
The problem King sees, I believe, is the overuse of adverbs. They can be a lazy way to write. I’m guilty of this, as I think many writers are in their first drafts. But that’s why we edit. We consider “is this the best way to say what we want?” Sometimes, adverbs provide that “best way” and other times, we choose a stronger verb or rewrite the sentence.
An agent (who I won’t name) posted this a few years ago on twitter (since deleted):
I’m sure the poster of this poor advice has reasons for spreading it — because we all know there are some people who toss adjectives and adverbs around like Mardi Gras beads on Fat Tuesday. But to delete ALL adjectives and adverbs? REALLY?
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a grammar expert. I love my copyeditor because (usually) he/she will fix my mistakes. So I’m not giving you a grammar lesson here, I’m giving you an author’s perspective on words as both a storyteller and a reader.
The Dictionary.com definition of an adjective:
ADJECTIVE: a word or phrase naming an attribute, added to or grammatically related to a noun to modify or describe it.
I learn by example, so I’m going to give some examples as to why deleting all adverbs and adjectives will make your work boring.
In the screenshot above, “submitting” describes the type of author she’s talking to, therefore is an adjective. I suppose you could argue that “submitting author” is the entire noun, but I think it’s an adjective.
“Direct” describes “result.” She could have said “As a result” and that would have given us the same information, but she wanted to be emphatic, to show that by taking this advice, you’ll see a direct (i.e. clear, immediate) result. Not a result that might take weeks or years to see (such as the result of a meandering river cutting through a mountain.)
I understand what this agent wants to share with aspiring authors: she likely sees thousands of submissions every year written by unedited and unprofessional writers who think every line of dialogue needs a tag, and with that tag why not attach an adverb or three? “She said breathlessly.” “He roared angrily.”
And yeah, some writers over-describe the weather, or the clothes their characters wear. I can be guilty of using too many adjectives (I also tend to repeat myself!) That’s why I am ruthless in self-editing, and why I love my editor and copyeditor.
Or, as I have now edited to include an adverb and cut extraneous words … and I think it sounds better:
That’s why I ruthlessly self-edit and love my editors.
Hmm … maybe someday, I’ll share some before and after scenes. My rough draft, my self-edited draft, my editor’s notes, then the copyeditors fixes, then the final. I’ll see what I can dig up … later!
How we write is our style–our author voice. The descriptors we choose, how we use them in a sentence, how we show character and setting, is all part of our authorial style. If we remove all adjectives and adverbs we will all write exactly the same way. Noun verb. Noun verb. Sally ran to the park. She slid down the slide. She fell. The sand hurt her butt.
I’m not the best at identifying parts of speech (though in high school I used to love diagramming sentences, that was many years ago …) I’ve taken a stab at a few books from bestselling authors that I pulled from my shelf.
JD Robb, SECRETS IN DEATH
It wouldn’t kill her.
Probablywouldn’t kill her.
Eyebrows knit together beneath a
snowflakecap, Lieutenant Eve Dallas strode through the flood ofpeople on the crowdedsidewalk with thoughts nearlyas bitter as the Februarywind.
She’d rather be back in her vehicle and driving home through the jam of other vehicles.
Down to it, she’d rather engage in mortal combat in some downtownalleyway with a Zeused-upchemi-head than head for some fussy fernbar.
But a deal was a deal, and she’d run out of excuses–reasons, she self-corrected. She’d had
solidreasons to put this deal off.
Take away the adverbs and adjectives of this opening, and it’s dry and dull and loses the distinctive voice of Eve Dallas. (Don’t yell at me if I missed a few! Again, I’m not a grammarian.)
Lisa Gardner, CATCH ME
littlegirl woke up the way she’d been trained: quickly and quietly. She inhaled once, a hushedgasp in the stillnight, then her eyes fixed on her mother’s drawnface.
“Shh,” her mother whispered, finger to her lips. “They’re coming. It’s time, child. Move.”
The girl threw back her covers and sat up. The
winternight was cold; she could see her breath as a frostymist in the glowingmoonlight. The little girl was prepared, however. She and her oldersister alwaysslept fullydressed, layering T-shirts, sweatshirts, and coats regardless of the season. You never knew when They might come, flushing their prey from warmsanctuary into the treacherouswild. Unpreparedchildren would fail quickly, succumbing to exposure, dehydration, fear.
In the above example, the adjectives and adverbs give you details you need to really connect with the young girl who is the viewpoint character. You need to know that she’s little (young); that she has an older sister (not simply a sister); that through her mother’s “drawn” face, you sense that her mother is tired and fearful. Some of the adjectives set the scene (frosty, glowing, treacherous) which is instrumental in getting us, as readers, into the scene. Without them? the scene is interesting, but falls flat. And some of the descriptors are needed for clarity, such as “unprepared children” — she’s describing the children that the viewpoint character fears, because being unprepared means you will fail.
Stephen King, NEEDFUL THINGS
smalltown, the opening of a newstore is bignews.
It wasn’t as big a deal to Brian Rusk as it was to some; his mother, for instance. He had heard her discussing it (he wasn’t supposed to call it gossiping, she had told him, because gossiping was a
dirtyhabit and she didn’t do it) at some lengthon the telephone with her bestfriend, Myra Evans, over the last month or so. The firstworkmen had arrived at the oldbuilding which had last housed Western Maine Realty and Insurance right aroundthe time school let in again, and they had been busilyat work ever since. Not that anyone had much idea what they were up to in there; their first act had been to put in a largedisplay window, and their second had been to soap it opaque.
Whenever you hear advice that seems to be all or nothing — do this ALWAYS, don’t do that EVER — be skeptical. Stephen King says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs — but trust me when I say, he writes them on occasion. Why? Because sometimes, an adverb is the best way to convey the exact feeling or thought you want your reader to have.
Advice like the above — delete all adjectives and adverbs — is born out of frustration. I remember reading an unpublished 25 pages or so in the Kiss of Death contest years ago. The author used every dialogue tag on the planet … except for the tag I use 95% of the time: “said.” Her characters questioned, pronounced, moaned, growled, peppered, groaned, wailed, screamed, cried, and more as they spoke. While limiting repetitive words is a good thing (and I look for them during my editing phase), “said” is unique — it disappears to the reader.
But — like every “rule” this is really just a guideline. While I use “said” more than 95% of the time, there is a place for a well-placed adverb or even an alternate word like “whispered” or “asked.” I use them sparingly. You’ll find the right balance for your own voice.
I am the last person to give grammar advice — but I know about telling stories. And if you strip all the adverbs and adjectives out of your story, you’ll lose both style and voice. That said, when you edit, be ruthless. Consider stronger verbs and make one good adjective do the work of three. Editing is your friend. And so are all the parts of speech.
One more piece of advice — again, not a “rule” but a suggestion — read your story out loud during your editing stage. You’ll hear things you don’t see on the page and can add or cut words accordingly. This is where I find most of my repeated words, poor phrasing, or excessive description. This technique is especially useful with dialogue.
Coming later this week: Part Two: Story “Rules” and why to break them!
What do you think? Do you have a rule breaking story to share? Or maybe a question about advice you’ve been given?
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Also a fan of On Writing by Stephen King. I have the audio version as he is the narrator. Second job is a Realtor and Stephen drives around with me, giving me permission to write. :D
Thanks for doing these articles, bit fan of your work and now, your "guidelines".
I’m not a writer, or aspiring one, but loved reading your advice to those who wish to write. Seems like good advice for all including students in school.