Friday, August 03, 2012

Don't Kill Good Prose with Bad Choices—Watch out for Those Life-Sucking Modifiers

The goal of almost any writer is to write—and write well. The first part is simple to understand and apply. All it requires is a little time and discipline. (Okay, I said simple . . . NOT easy. But that’s a post for another time) The second part is truly hard—mainly because there are so many definitions of what good writing is.
Let’s start with what good writing isn’t
  • It isn’t flowery or verbose.
  • It doesn’t attempt to prove the author’s intelligence by requiring a dictionary to read. (see previous point).
Simply put, good writing conveys the author’s intent clearly and concisely.
This means sentences full of adjectives and adverbs are a good writer’s enemy. It’s always better to use specific nouns and active verbs rather than rely on modifiers to convey your meaning. Let me show you what I mean.
Not: Stuart walked quickly across the yard.
Instead: Stuart darted across the yard.
Do you see how walked quickly is a poor choice? It’s much harder to visualize because it’s not specific. Darted is a much more visual choice.
But what about adjectives—don’t those add depth to writing? Only when used with care.
Not: The pale purple petals released their sickly sweet odor causing her over-active stomach to heave in revolt.
Instead: Lavender hyacinths added their odor to her already reeling senses.
The first sentence in this example may seem over the top, but I assure you it isn’t. I’ve edited hundreds of manuscripts filled with enough excess verbiage to fill a swimming pool.
So what can you do to help tighten up your writing?
First, be on the lookout for passive verbs. These encourage the use of adverbs.
SPECIAL NOTE: The verb was isn’t always passive tense—sometimes it’s past tense.
Second, double check your nouns—are they general, like flower or house? If so, choose a more specific word, like hyacinth or cottage.
Finally, practice your craft. There’s never a good substitution for actually doing the work.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t describe things, only that your descriptions should be tight. You want to provide enough information for the reader to get what you’re saying without boring them. Anytime a reader scans or skips over something there’s an issue. 

Now I'm curious. What are some things authors do that cause your inner eyes to glaze over?

Edie Melson is the bestselling author of Social Media Marketing for Writers and a devotional for military families, Fighting Fear: Winning the War at Home When Your Soldier Leaves for Battle. She is a prolific freelance writer, editor, and co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, as well a faculty member at numerous others. Visit her popular writing blog, The Write Conversation


Gina Holmes said...

I think bad writing, or rather mediocre writing, can be too rule-driven, too clean, too without adjectives or any lyrical quality. What happens in fiction particularly is we end up with cardboard writing. I would encourage writers to pick up some books like Memoirs of a Geisha, any of Geraldine Brooks' stuff, Charles Martin's older stuff and see how people can write beautifully. The trick is balance. You can easily lose voice by writing too tight.

Ane Mulligan said...

Good article, Edie. I think we must know these things in order to know when to "break" the rules. There are times when a good adjective or adverb adds a musical or lyrical quality to the prose. I tend to write lean, especially in the first draft, but then purposely add what is necessary to make the writing come alive.

BUT - I've always said, if you don't know or use the guidelines of good writing, you won't know when yours is good or bad. :)

Martha W. Rogers said...

As a former college English instructor, bad grammar, usage, and mechanics not in dialogue give me heartburn. One thing especially is beginning a sentence with an -ing phrase that has the character doing one thing the at the same time doing something else that is impossible.

Example: Biting into her hamburger and sipping her soda, she unzipped her jacket to grab her cell phone. What? Did she have two mouths and three hands? And I've read books where the author had five or six such phrases on one page. Why didn't the copy editor catch those?

"Rules of writing" like pov, passive voice, using adjectives and adverbs can be broken. Like Ane said, if you know the guidelines you'll know if your writing is good or bad. However, in my humble opinion, the basic rules of grammar, usage, and mechanics should be followed as much as possible. The exceptions being in dialogue or in a fast paced mystery/suspense where short incomplete sentences raise the tension and move the story along at a fast pace. When in doubt, check the Chicago Manual of Style.

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

Good advice Edie. I like the word, "cottage" over "house." It makes a lot of sense to change that and brings a pleasant image to mind. Thanks for this. The new words you chose are much more interesting.

The biggest things I dislike in reading novels are a quick ending, and timing that bounces me all over the calendar.

After all the words, images, and details I've received, it's irritating to read a quick summary of the end. I also get frustrated by characters flipping between time. The male is in this time zone and the story reverts back in time to what the female was thinking a month ago. The Star Wars (George Lucas) movies and books are good at timing- Hans Solo is on ice, Luke runs in to help, while Leah hopes to be rescued. The timing is great. As a reader I don't miss a step and no one is left in the past for me to revisit.

sally apokedak said...

Good reminders.

I sometimes glaze over when there is too much description. It's not that I mind modifiers. I mind description that doesn't matter to the book. In other words, if a character walks into a room, I don't necessarily need the room described in detail unless there is something strange about the room. I find myself bored when in the middle of the action, the story stops dead while the author describes a person or place.

I don't think a writer needs to tell me there's a table in the dining room, because I automatically "see" a table when a character walks into a dining room. But if there's no table, I need to know that. Otherwise I'll be surprised later when she mentions that they all sat on the floor to eat.