Misunderstandings about what makes good writing abound. What you were taught at school may not be the best practice at all.
Said usage is not a sin
In primary school, my teachers asked us to avoid using the word said, as if that would make our writing better. It doesn’t. Fancy dialogue tags (words other than said, replied and perhaps the occasional exclaimed to indicate who is speaking) are obvious—they jump out at the reader—and so interrupt the reading experience and remind readers they’re reading. But we want our readers so totally immersed in our story that they forget they are reading. We want them to feel as if they are in the action, right there with the characters, and fancy dialogue tags do the opposite of that. Said is so ordinary that we skim over it. And this is only one of the misunderstandings I see often in beginner writers. There are far more skilful and interesting ways to avoid countless ‘saids’ than replacing them with synonyms. For instance, you can replace dialogue tags with actions assigned to the speaker. That has the benefit of grounding the dialogue and deepening character.
The adverb fallacy
Thinking that the liberal use of adverbs (words that describe an action, often ending in ‘ly’) is what makes good writing is another common fallacy. Beginning fiction authors often feel that adverbs make their writing more exciting, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Why?
Surely, you may think, writing that someone ran frantically is more interesting than simply saying they ran. But no. It’s simply lazy writing. The constant use of adverbs soon makes for very tedious reading not only because the sentence construction becomes predictable but also because writing liberally peppered with adverbs tends to tell a story rather than show a story. And a story that is told isn’t as interesting as one that is shown. (Click here to learn about ‘showing’ and ‘telling’.)
To understand why adverb usage isn’t what makes good writing, we need to start by asking what kind of effect we want our writing to have on our readers. I expect that most fiction authors would want their writing to be engaging, gripping even. We want books where the writing holds the reader’s attention so they want to read on. We think it’s the story that does this, but the prose itself, the way the words are written, is far more important in creating an exciting book than many realise.
We want prose that makes the reader feel that the story is happening around them right now. We want the reader totally immersed in the story and we create that with prose that gives a sense of immediacy.
But writing that things happen immediately doesn’t do that. It does the opposite.
The problem with ‘Immediately’ and other such adverbs.
The word immediately and its friends suddenly, instantly and even unexpectedly are mostly unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that we can never use them, just that we shouldn’t use them as a matter of course to try to make readers think that things are happening at a fast pace, because what they actually do is slow down the reading, thus doing the opposite of what we might think they’re doing.
Huh? How does this work? You may ask.
Consider the following series of actions.
- John swings his leg around and knocks Harold’s feet out from beneath him.
- Harold falls to the ground, then struggles to get up again.
- Before he manages to get to his feet, John kicks him in the chest, knocking him back down and winding him.
- ‘I’m sorry, okay,’ Harold says, his words a surprise.
Which of the options below reads the best?
Reacting instantly, John angrily swings his leg around and knocks Harold’s feet out from beneath him. Harold falls awkwardly to the ground and, wincing in pain, immediately tries to get back up, but John quickly gives him a brutal kick in the chest, knocking him back down and winding him.
‘I’m sorry, okay,’ Harold says unexpectedly.
His face set in a snarl, John swings his leg around and knocks Harold’s feet out from beneath him. Harold crumples onto the ground, wincing in pain. He scrambles to his knees, but John stomps over and kicks him in the chest. The object of John’s exasperation falls backwards and lands with a thump, the air rushing from his lungs.
Harold gasps for breath and raises his hands in surrender. ‘I’m sorry, okay.’
John raises an eyebrow. He wasn’t expecting that.
Why is the second example better?
The words instantly, immediately, and quickly tell us in what way these events happen, but they are completely unnecessary because the sense of one thing happening immediately after the other is automatically there in this action. It does not need to be added in. Of course the events in a fight happen straight after each other! If they didn’t, the author would say so by having the adversaries take a breath or something.
In the second example, the speed of the interaction is emphasised by using two shorter sentences instead of the one long one as the second sentence in the first example.
Such adverbs just create more words to read through before we can get to the part that tells us what happens. Readers want to know what happens more than they want to know in what way something happens. Emphasising what happens keeps the story rolling along at a good pace. Extraneous words always slow down the pace, and good writing isn’t peppered with extraneous words.
The first example tells us that the writer thinks John is angry by using the adverb angrily. The second shows us John anger directly (no writer’s opinion) by describing his facial expression. That description allows the reader to see John’s face, thus placing us in the scene, and from his expression they understand that he’s angry.
‘Falls awkwardly’ in the first instance becomes ‘crumpled onto the ground’ in the second. Again we are given a visual image of how he falls, rather than being told that he falls in some unspecified awkward manner. Crumpling is always awkward, thus making the adverb awkwardly redundant.
Brutal is another unnecessary word used in the first example—an adjective that describes the noun kick. Why is it unecessary? Because what kind of a kick to the chest isn’t brutal? And if you want to show that it was a strong kick, the second example shows how to do that by making poor Harold ‘land with a thump, the air rushing from his lungs.’ Again, that shows exactly how forceful the kick was, rather than being told that it was brutal, something that doesn’t need to be stated because a kick to the chest is brutal by its very nature.
In addition, knocking and winding in the first example are passive versions of the verbs knock and wind (or knocked and winded in past tense). This is because the ‘ing’ ending verbs aretacked onto another action—in this case the kick having the result of knocking down and winding. This usage doesn’t give these actions due emphasis as an action in their own right, thus diminishing their importance and making the writing less immediate. In the second version, Harold falls, lands and gasps. This word usage makes each action stronger than their counterparts in meaning in the first example.
In general, being careful not to overuse ‘ing’ endings makes the writing more active and immediate.
If you haven’t studied and practiced the craft of writing and worked with a line editor who can teach you what makes good writing in terms of how you construct the prose, then my analysis of what makes example two the better prose may seem overwhelming. Writing well isn’t as easy as some think it is. But the good news is that if you follow a few trusty guidelines you will naturally find better ways to write.
My book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine is full of guidelines that, if followed, will improve your prose. And until you understand why these guidelines are important, and you are able to incorporate them naturally in your writing, you’ll need a line editor to improve your prose.
Try to write without adverbs and certainly keep them to a bare minimum. They tell, rather than show. Replace them with one verb that says the same thing, (e.g. instead of saying he ‘looked angrily’, say ‘he glared’) or simply delete the adverb. If you’ve set the situation well before the adverb, they’re rarely needed. If they seem necessary, then your writing may be lacking something. Ask yourself how you can write the scene so that the action the adverb describes is obvious without using the adverb.
‘Overwritten: He ran angrily across the lawn.
‘Revised: He stomped across the lawn.
Stephen King insists that good writing doesn’t need adverbs because the reader gets the idea from the active writing of the scene. He says that adverbs indicate lazy writing.’The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, Tahlia Newland
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