Tag Archives: descriptors and modifiers

Context and adverbs #amwriting

New writers embarking on the journey of learning the craft are bombarded with rules:

~Show, don’t tell,

~Simplify, simplify,

~Don’t write long sentences

~Avoid abstraction

~Don’t use big words.

These are necessary rules, but can be taken to an extreme. The most important rules are

~Trust yourself, and

~Trust your reader.

~Write what you want to read.

Whether you are self-editing or editing for another writer, it’s important to understand balance. Editing is a job that requires delicacy and dedication. It’s far too easy for a ham-fisted editor to remove the joy, the life, the author’s voice from a piece.

As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we owe it to ourselves to write from the heart.

Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.

We know that certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they separate the reader from the experience.

For me, especially in my first draft, these words are like tics–they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly, and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because at that point I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

All of my three current manuscripts are genre fiction. This means I must write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them. However, I will not blindly remove every ‘ly’ word, because that would be ridiculous.

Consider adverbs, words that are sometimes reviled and banned by writing groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge. Descriptors frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’ I do a global search for these letters and a list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of words with yellow highlighted “ly’s.” It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If they weaken the narrative, I change or remove them.

When it comes to adverbs, many times simply removing them strengthens the prose. If they are necessary, I leave them. As Chuck Wendig said, words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

Personally, I don’t see myself reading a book written with no adverbs whatsoever.

I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and other “weed words,” look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence, and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.

Sometimes I feel married to a certain passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, it must go to the outtakes file, my tears notwithstanding.

Before I bother a professional editor with my work, I want to make the process as smooth as possible. I seek out the words I would flag as an editor, making what is called a “global search.”

Caution: if you are hasty or impatient a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript. Be aware: This is a boring, time-consuming task.

You can’t take shortcuts. If you get hasty and choose to “Replace All” you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work.

The word ‘very’ comes in for a lot of abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms. Suppose you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You open the navigation pane and the advanced search dialog box. In the ‘Replace With’ box you don’t key anything, thinking this will eliminate the problem.

Before you click ‘replace all’ consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

Deleting every instance of ‘very’ could mess things up on an incredibly large scale.

If you have decided something is a ‘weed word,’ examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? If so, you may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word in conversation. If you have used it in the narrative to describe an object, it’s probably not needed.

Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent a year or more writing that novel, so why wouldn’t you take a few days to do the job right.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

As I have mentioned before, editing programs are out there, some free, and some for an annual fee. Your word processing program has spell check which can help or hinder you. Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, but the problem is, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing:

  • “The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.
  • Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched.I have no idea why.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect. 

A person with a limited knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. This is because these programs operate by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation. New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and learn how grammar works.

Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function. Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

I don’t mind taking the time to visit each problem and resolve them one at a time. I see this as part of my job, just what an author does to make sure her work is finished to the best of her ability.


Credits and Attributions:

The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble, http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/12/12/the-danger-of-writing-advice-from-industry-professionals/  ©2017. Accessed 12 Dec 2017.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: creating lean but descriptive prose

wordsSome work is written so starkly it may as well be a phone-book. This tells me that author X has really taken to heart the much-bandied, amateurish idea of no adverbs and adjectives, ever.

That concept is flawed.

It is true that when we carve away unneeded modifiers, we move from telling the story to showing it, which is the goal of every author. But the key here is the word ‘unneeded.’

Some modification of your verbs and nouns is necessary, or you have a ‘Dick and Jane” novel.

See Jane. See Jane run.

Even if the concept for the plot has some merit, a stark, completely bare-bones approach won’t make it worth reading. The idea behind the novel might intrigue me, and I could be curious as to where the author is going with the idea.  But despite being curious, if I don’t enjoy reading the narrative I won’t finish it.

gibberish-american businesses onlineWe all know fluffed-up prose (A.K.A. ‘purple’ prose) is daunting and hides the action, but don’t let a knee-jerk reaction to a bad beta-read by an armchair critic make you go the route of completely eliminating modifiers and descriptors. A well-written narrative is sparing with descriptors and modifiers, this is true—but modifiers and descriptors do exist within every good narrative and are there for a reason.

Sometimes a thought requires a little description: An old man carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This idea could be told several ways, and here are two, off the top of my head, one less wordy than the other. Both use modifiers and descriptors:

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

There is a reason that descriptors and modifiers exist in the English language. They add flavor, spicing up a flat wall of words.  Just like salt in the soup, too much is too much and too little is not enough.  We are looking for that happy medium where the prose flows in such a way that the reader forgets they are reading and lives the story.

I read a lot of work that begins with a great concept, but has no substance. If only the author had been had been brave enough to tell a good story these novels could have been great. Instead I was given a laundry list of characters acting and reacting to events with no passion or emotion.

It could have meant something to me as a reader, but it didn’t.

Good prose requires choosing words that convey your ideas in the least amount of space. Modifiers and descriptors do that for us, but need to be chosen carefully, and used only when nothing else will do.

i read because memeIf you are writing a novel you want the reader to live your story and react to the ideas and emotions that you are conveying instead of stumbling over limpid pools of velvet blue eyes or falling flatly into skeletal accounts of boredom. It’s our task to find the middle ground that exists between purple prose and lack of soul.

We want to get the reader immersed in the story, and make them forget the real world for a short time. As a reader, I love it when that happens.

7 Comments

Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized, writing