Tag Archives: descriptors

How the Written Universe Works part 6 – modifiers, descriptors, and quantifiers #amwriting

The written universe can seem like a cold, unfriendly place to new writers. At first, it is difficult to find other writers, and we wonder if we are alone in the universe. When we finally are able to see across the void, we discover writing groups in our local area.

How the written universe works 6We are not alone. We are part of a vast cosmos of authors much like us, some far more advanced and others less so.

At times, we wonder if our star will ever shine as brightly as theirs.

We attend groups and submit our best work. In the beginning, we feel bombarded with reprimands, x-rays highlighting our beloved narrative’s flaws.

  • Show it, don’t tell it.
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Don’t write so many long sentences.
  • Don’t be vague—get to the point.
  • Don’t use “ten-dollar words.”
  • Cut the modifiers—they muck up your narrative.

These comments are painful but necessary. This knowledge enables us to produce work our readers will find enjoyable.

However, all rules can be taken to an extreme. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

We must understand how to balance mechanics and grammar and other obvious rules and still write with our own voice and style.

Participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. It also involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. A group shouldn’t micromanage a manuscript, as too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

One of the admonitions we regularly hear refers to the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use. As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed.

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. [1]

When we read, we see that certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase wordiness. These words hamper our ability to suspend our disbelief when used too freely.

These words fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. During NaNoWriMo, 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.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” “besides.”

Descriptors: Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. However, they can be reviled by writing groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

Many descriptors are easy to spot as they often end with the letters “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly,” and a list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it.

Quantifiers: abstract nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or impression, such as: very, a great deal of, a good deal of, a lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

Removing descriptors and quantifiers often strengthens the prose by eliminating the sense of vagueness. If they are necessary, I leave them. As Chuck Wendig said, words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

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

Sometimes I feel married to a particular passage. Even so, certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they make the story seem unreal, and that is something we don’t want. These are known as “weed words.”

Before I bother a professional editor with my work, 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. This is a boring, time-consuming task. Don’t take shortcuts. If you panic and choose to “Replace All,” you risk ruining your work.

The word “very” is a quantifier. It attracts abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms and is considered a weed word.

Perhaps 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. Next, you don’t key anything in the “Replace With” box, 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

A hard truth about weed words is that they are often components of larger words.

Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.

However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, it’s probably unnecessary.

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. Why not take a few days to do the job right?

There is no quick way to do this. Every aspect of editing must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

weak-words-LIRF04262022Feel free to copy the above image and save it to your files as a .png or .jpeg, and also the modifiers as connectors image, above right.

As I have mentioned before, editing programs are available, 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. Unfortunately, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing.

We define context 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 limited knowledge of grammar and mechanics won’t benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. This is because these programs operate by algorithms and finite rules.

The program 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. I recommend investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Look things up and learn how grammar works.

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.

>>><<

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

How the Written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the Written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid

How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives 

How the Written Universe Works part 5: ellipsis, em dash, hyphen, semicolon 

Credits and Attributions:

[1] 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 25 April 2022.

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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.

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Achieving a Balanced Narrative

395px-Ellimans-Universal-Embrocation-Slough-1897-AdI was involved (as a horrified bystander) in an online dispute over how much description is needed in today’s genre fiction.  I walked wide of that mess, as it was clear that one author with an online pseudonym was in assassin mode. The other, whose prose had been harshly critiqued, also using a pseudonym, had called in her flying monkeys, all of whom proceeded to tear the argumentative ‘troll’ to shreds.

Ugh.  What a waste of time for all of us, bystanders included. It should have been a civilized discussion about using adjectives and achieving balance when showing and not telling your story.

Sadly, in this case the troll was right, but his attitude was so arrogant, he negated the value of his opinion, with normally sane people reduced to begging him to just ‘shut it.’

The prose in question was far too florid for my taste, forcing the reader to watch every excruciating, drawn out second as the the main character slowly curved his lush, full lips into a sexy, white smile, his pink tongue just touching his full, trembling, lower lip.

Pardon me, I must go barf now.

I prefer to read work written with in a lean style, as too much showing gets in the way of the story. It becomes a matter of the author forcing his vision onto me, as the reader, and is just as unpleasant to read as a narrative that tells you how to feel.

This is my view on the subject of description in the narrative: when you write about a room, any room, you don’t describe the details of room. You tell the character’s story as he enters the room.

What does the character see? What does he or she do in response to those things? Do they use the old wall-mounted telephone? Do they open the drapes? Perhaps he picks up the newspaper, and continues into the kitchen. Each character is different, and will see and do different things, and through those actions your room will come into focus in the mind of the observer–the reader.

Describing emotions is done the same way as describing the setting. We have all been told over and over again that in narrative, the most intimate way to show a feeling is to show the state of the protagonist’s body.

But how do we do that?  Let’s take humiliation:

Her face turned bright red in embarrassment.  

This sentence is what we call telling–the author has baldly told you how the character feels and why. This separates the reader from the sense of being the character. While the character may feel that her face had flushed, it’s unlikely that she would know the exact shade of red she had turned. To make it from the protagonist’s point of view and keep it simple, just write what happened.

Her face burned and she turned away.

Here is my  thought on this subject: we don’t need to get crazy, and give the minute details of her burning flesh heating up until she could see her nose glowing like Rudolph on steroids…we just need simple descriptions that point the reader in the right direction. If our character is really humiliated you can add one more descriptor, but still keep it simple:

Her face burned, and nauseated, she turned away.  

This is as much humiliation as I would put a reader through in one sentence. Realistically, the protagonist would feel the burning of her face, and would feel the nausea. The reader will taste the nausea if you describe the sensations with too much detail so keep the details to the bare minimum.

With that said, it is crucial that you give SOME clues as to what the character is feeling, as the reader will be completely lost without some sort of visual cues.

640px-Bicycling-ca1887-bigwheelersTake a look at what the protagonist’s body might be doing. What did it feel like when you experienced the same emotion? What did your body do? What did you feel inside? Was there a heaviness in your chest? A lump in your throat? Did you feel light-headed or weak-kneed? Did your face burn? Close your eyes and think about how you experience an emotional moment and allow your senses to take over.

With that memory in your head, write it down.

Just remember that it is crucial that you don’t over do it. Just like riding a bicycle, you must have balance in your descriptions: there must be enough description to intrigue the reader, but not so much it overpowers the story.

 

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