A writing post not about Adverbs

I feel like I haven’t done a proper blog post in forever. Which may actually be true. Life has been  – scratch that, work has been insane and although I have this ridiculously long list of things I would love to write about – it keeps growing every day as I come across stuff that interests me –  the only thing I have remotely ready to go is this. It actually was culled from a much longer piece on adverbs 😀 but since that topic is so immense and deathly important I had to cut it, with an idea I might use it later. So, later has arrived. It always does. And we appear to be in a post-adverbial state. It’s quite pleasant.


My greatest concern with some of the rules so beloved of writing sites is that they may be leading the fledgling writer down the wrong path. We’re learning to look for things that are irrelevant and missing out on learning things that might actually be of use. There are about three things in terms of prose that immediately jump to mind when I think of new writers – writers. I’m not entirely sure that I’m ever not going to have to keep an eye on these elements

  1. overwriting

This is unnecessary detail, such as she closed the door with her hand, she ran her eyes over the page of writing.. In and of themselves they are fine, inoffensive and sometimes even add a nice beat (nothing is ever off limits) but done repeatedly it really does make the read drag – it’s rarely eloquent like description can be, gives no necessary information and unlike adverbs usually involves more than one easy to skim over word. I know those examples feel unhelpfully simplified. Does anyone actually write like that? In truth the way this manifests in your prose can be quite hard to spot. It something you learn more from repetitive reading and becomes a sort of instinct. One, as I said, that lost in your own story can sometimes get buried. This is a real life example – paraphrased slightly 🙂

Jennifer did not look at the other girl and gave no sign she had heard her.

First instinct might lead you to merely scratch out the ‘other’ and ‘her’, but in reality you’re saying the same thing twice. Decide what you want the sentence to say, where the emphasis is –  in the fact she did not turn her head or the overall blankness of her response – then cut.

Jennifer gave no sign she had heard her.

2. purple prose

A general and frustratingly vague term. Some would have it be any emotive or descriptive writing that exceeds more than a line. Far too encompassing to be of any use, but within it are what I call waxing philosophical and overgilding. Waxing is basically rambling on about feelings on life, love the universe without any grounding in the story itself. You find a lot of this in certain types of books, whisper ‘literary types..’ 😀 and really it’s more of preference than a mistake. Even those who write genre have wiggle room. Take this famous opening passage (no subtle innuendo intended there.. honest).

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something – Twilight, Stephanie Meyer.

The trick is in the way it is woven into and through with your story. It’s all really a matter of degree, which is what makes it so hard.

Overgilding is where judgement, the eye of experience and confidence really comes into play. Essentially it’s a matter of too many descriptors, not so much adverbs but adjectives tend to be the worst culprits here. As Twain said

As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.

The worst of it however falls into the six sentences saying one thing – cause none of them feel quite right.

The bright sun seared her cheek, turning her slowly emerging world to gold. The light just beyond her eyelids was bright and clear, and she turned seeking the comforting darkness, holding her hand up to protect her fragile cocoon, but the air around her was changing, brightening, and sparkling at the corners of her perception. Around her colour started to bleed through, golden and hazy…

All to say she wished she closed the blind before she went to sleep. I often think of this..

Be brave. Be bold. Strike it out.

3. blocking

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say – Anais Nin

This is my term for lack of variation and flow in your sentences. Master flow and you can call yourself a writer my – well anyone can call themselves a writer, but you got the magic touch if you have this. This is where voice lives more than any other place. You might not be distinctive but that never held others back. Lack of flow will. Because its bloody awful to read, but it is shockingly easy to do, especially when we move from simply dumping out thoughts out, to crafting a scene, a conversation, action, a character arc. We all have flow in our love letters (you all write those right?) it’s a kind of verbal vomiting, its why tell is so much easier, we crystallise our thoughts every day with words so we’re used to this kind of transition – from thought to sentence – anything more specific and tripping up over ourselves is natural.

The dark was bitingly cold but the boy’s lamp was warm and bright. The heat made the tent sweat, leaving a layer of condensation on the fabric. The condensation sparkled in the lamp light and sealed the gaps between the seams.

This is essentially the same structure  – one of the most simple and perhaps why the word ‘was’ gets such a bad rap – repeated over and over. The + Noun(subject) + verb (simple past tense), exacerbated by repeated and unnecessary words. What’s also noticeable is that each sentence, principally because of the elements mentioned, stands very much independent of the others. Compare to the following..

The dark was bitingly cold, the boy’s lamp offering the only warmth. It made the tent sweat and left a layer of condensation on the fabric that sparkled in the flickering light, sealing the gaps between the seams.

It isn’t merely a matter of removing unnecessary or repetitive words, but creating a sense of one sentence leading organically on to the next.

All of these stem from a lack of confidence, not in your reader, but in yourself. The new writer likely doesn’t even see them, but rather feels them in a niggling sense of things not quite reading right. From the fire of the conjuring mind to a few cool black squiggles on the screen, it can be a bit anti-climatic and you’re never quite sure what’s to blame. Even after you’ve done your obligatory one million words you’ll likely find they’re still there, hiding away in unexpected places. And sometimes, they might even come in the guise of an adverb.



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