Writing Tips (On Adverbs)

Last night I was reading an article re-tweeted by Neil Gaiman (article here: http://www.openculture.com/2012/01/writing_rules.html) and it made me realize two things: One, I really need to pick up a copy of American Gods, and two, you learn something new every day.

I went over this list of writing tips and found some tips I hadn’t heard before. And I realized some of these “don’t do”s are things I “do do”. (Yeah, I said “do do”, go ahead and get your giggles out of your system, I’ll wait.)

At first I was upset. The usual “I broke writing rule X, I’ll never get published, AAAHHHH!!!” followed. But after I calmed down I looked at it another way. Realizing I’ve done something wrong is just another way of saying I’ve learned something. And I don’t think I ever want to stop learning, especially when it comes to writing.

Every writer has their weaknesses. We all have that one word we can never spell correctly, that one rule that always slips our mind, we all have an Achilles’ heel. These are not road blocks, they aren’t the train tracks with the lowered bars and blinking lights crossing your path to becoming a published author. They’re just opportunities to learn.

Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop writing, and for goodness’ sake don’t ever stop reading about writing.

I think from time to time I’ll post a writing tip I’ve picked up along my own path. I’m not really a published author yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two. And if you don’t believe me, you can always comment on my blog and tell me why you think I’m wrong. Or you can look it up yourself and see what other, more professional people have to say. I gladly welcome either.

Let’s start today. There’s no day like today, right?

If you clicked on the link I provided earlier, you’ll see Elmore Leonard’s list at the top. (If you didn’t click the link I provided earlier, why not?) Some of his have been shortened, but I found two tips at greater length:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

I’ll try to explain my reasoning for following this rule. Let’s pretend for a second I would ever write the following line:

“OH GOD!!!” he screamed loudly.

And let’s ignore the caps-lock and multiple exclamation marks (bonus tip: don’t use them). There is a lot of redundancy in this tiny sentence. Focusing on “loudly”, why is that necessary? Has anyone ever screamed quietly? And let’s look at the “screamed”. Well, there’s an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence (three, but if I was editing this I would cut at least two of them out). When someone is exclaiming something, it means they’re putting a lot of energy into whatever they’re exclaiming. Do you need to tell your readers that someone is screaming an exclamation? Probably not. Especially if there’s context:

John’s mother died before his eyes.

“Oh God!”

If you watched your mother die (and I pray this never happens to you) chances are you would scream, unless your mother is a Disney stepmother, in which case you’d go and marry a prince. That bit of dialogue is enough. Adding “he screamed” or worse “he screamed loudly” is telling the reader something you’ve already told them. I don’t know about you, but I hate being told things I already know. Your job as a writer is to tell me a story, not lecture me. It’s fluff. Destroy it.

I went to one of my manuscripts, which is 440 pages, and counted up my “said”s. As long as I haven’t mis-counted, only one of them is followed by an adverb. And I do feel like that one is important. Go into your manuscript and get rid of yours. I’ll bet your manuscript isn’t longer than mine (and if it is, you should know someone already wrote Atlas Shrugged) so if I can get that far and use only one, so can you. And if you find yourself doing what I did and thinking “but I need this one” and especially if you find yourself doing it for more than one, just remember:

I used one too many.

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