Writing betterer

More style tips today. The first one comes from Rayne Hall via Venture Galleries in the form of sentences that mark you out as a beginner. I’ve added some thoughts after in italics:

  1. S/he turned to look/and looked at him/her – I was definitely guilty of this one. When starting out there is a compunction to establish the setting of everything, to describe the scene as you picture it. It’s only once you’ve spent time writing, exploring your own bad habits, that you begin to realise just how much is either already implied or is simply unnecessary. Turning as a verb should be reserved for journeys and, occasionally, cases where you character facing has significance as to what/who they can see. Really though, it’s like suddenly (see below) – you almost certainly don’t need it.
  2. S/he nodded slowly – This one is a stock dramatic image and a cliché  It may well crop up when you’re considering how best to phrase that deeply considered reaction your character is about to give, the literary equivalent of the loading progress bar.
  3. S/he took a deep breath to steady her/himself – This is another stock cliché. If you really must have something like this stick with ‘prepared’ or a genuine description of what they are doing. If you find yourself writing this (or 2, indeed) the stop, take a deep breath and think again. Resist the urge to nod slowly once you find something pithier to replace it. 

The other tips come from the late Elmore Leonard and his article, Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. There’s more room to disagree with Leonard’s points here because following them strictly removes certain plot devices and other techniques from your pencil case. However, they are very good rules and even if you occasionally ignore them they should make you think why you’re ignoring them and the effect you are creating in compensation.

A good example of one to sometimes ignore is 3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue. On a purely functional level I like ‘replied’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’ and others which convey extra information. However, I agree with the point he makes – if you get as far as ‘asseverated’ maybe check the rear-view mirror to make sure the convey is still with you.

There are a couple which, to my mind, are non-negotiable though. Again, my thoughts in italics. The rules are:

4. 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.” The Stephen King Rule.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control – You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful. Another variation on this rule is 4 per year! So I’d have three left. Sparingly, guys.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” – This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. I’ve already touched on this (Keep it Concise) but it can’t be stressed enough. Immediacy, urgency, tension and the like are all connoted. If you don’t know what I mean watch Alien again and tell me which bits are the most tense. How many was the alien in?

Keep it concise

There are lessons to be learned every day. Today’s lesson is this: When writing, keep it concise.

Sure, we all know about Hemingway. But when writing I use things like the following, all too frequently:

  • suddenly
  • now
  • turned to
  • looked at

I got called up on it today. I went back and looked again. I removed most of them. It looks better now.

That list shouldn’t be taken as exhaustive, of course.

Less is more.