Write? Right?

After 35 years as a technical writer, I am discovering many aspiring writers secretly — maybe not so secretly — want to write user guides. While invoking a glamor by calling their work fiction, their truest heart’s desire is to write dry narrative. We, the readers, should fill descriptive gaps from the overflowing richness of our imaginations.

If description is not the author’s job, who needs the author? If I can find all that imagery in my head, why should I read your book?

Everyone wants to be Ernest Hemingway. I’d rather read William Faulkner. Never exclude the possibility that what you want to write is not what people want to read.

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A wholesale willingness to discard pieces of our language appalls me. I’m not looking for the leanest, cleanest text. I love description. I revel in complexity. I adore rich language, word play, emotional depth, color and texture. I want my authors to carry me to unexplored and previously undreamt of realms. I wish to be transported on wings woven of words, to undertake soaring flights I would never achieve on my own. In my opinion, that is an author’s job. If not that, then what?

I deplore the overuse of any grammatical structure, but to suggest the complete elimination of adverbs and modifiers? Much of the beauty of the English language is the huge vocabulary available to us. And unlike German, Russian, and many Romance languages, English grammar is flexible, offering a wide variety of constructions. You aren’t locked into any rigid forms. You can place modifiers as you please and modify verbs, nouns and just about anything else.

The quote from Stephen King “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” has been tossed around a lot.

But I am sure it was not intended to suggest we eliminate adverbs. Read anything Stephen King has written and discover he is one of the richest users of English, as per the following clip from 11/23/63. Count, if you like, the number of adverbs and adverbial clauses. If you can.

KingText

No author would advocate banning any part of speech. King’s admonition urges you to avoid overusing adverbs, not eliminating them because if you were to read a few lines further, he admits that ultimately, like everyone else he uses whatever parts of speech are right and most importantly, ensure that the reader understands what he means. Stephen King is not a great writer because his prose is so lean. He is a great writer because of its richness and creativity, the poetry of his words. Lean? Hardly.

Books need to be engaging, interesting. Writers need to love words. Everything ever written about writing is no more than a guideline. To write well you need to hear the music of words, the flow of them. You need to know when your narrative needs to be spare and when you need a glorious outpouring of rhythm and poetry. No one can teach you to write. It is a gift. You can learn to write better, but if you have no inherent talent for words, no amount of hard work will turn you into an author.

You can get away with virtually anything but if you bore your readers, they will never forget or forgive. And if by chance I’m reviewing your book? I won’t be counting your adverbs. Trust me, if I even notice parts of speech, you’ve already failed. Dismally (yes, it’s an adverb … cope).

Ultimately the only thing that matters is how your story and characters resonate with readers. You can create the most perfect text ever put on paper, but unless it’s interesting, readable, entertaining, gripping … I don’t care and neither will anyone else.

Worry less about style. Worry more about content.

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12 thoughts on “Write? Right?

  1. Brilliant advice, I totally agree. I’m assuming the pingback for my article might be included amongst those who ‘suggest the complete elimination of adverbs and modifiers’? If so, please don’t misunderstand me: the eradication of all adverbs is not on my agenda. I write fiction, so it is useful for me to take note of certain technicalities. However, I’m a big advocate of bending the ‘rules’ – that being pieces of advice that tell you what not to do in order to be a ‘good writer’.

    Adverbs, like all modifiers, can be well-used… but then they can also be over-used.

    That was the message I was trying to convey in my article. If I didn’t make a good job of it, I can only apologise for the misunderstanding… I do agree with your piece and believe it is very relevant though. It says what I couldn’t say.

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    • Thanks for the clarification. The problem with giving advice to writers is no matter what you say, it’s not true, but there is truth in it. Because writing by its nature rejects rules. In the end, all anyone can do is suggest how to improve, but each of us has a unique process. What works for me may be useless for anyone else.

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      • Yes, agreed. I hope then in the future that my ‘tips’ can be seen more as ‘suggestions’. I’d be the first to tell any writers reading them that my comments can be taken or left! Writing is an incredibly personal thing after all.

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  2. As a reader, I mostly agree with you. But I’ve always loved Hemingway and Steinbeck AND Faulkner. I was pleasantly surprised with King’s 11/23/63 because I’m not a devotee of Mr. King. However, his writing was poetry and music this time. I’m still grounded in the school of less is more after all my years as a TV News guy where my words merely (and justly) complimented the video.

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    • My point really is that there is a right time and place for everything. There’s no such thing as a “bad part of speech.” There’s room for Faulkner, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen King, and Robert Heinlein and a million others too. There’s no wrong. There’s only bad writing. To set up hard and fast rules misses the point. The whole language in all its grandeur is ours to use. Pick and choose as you like to do your thing. Rules are there to be broken, especially when you’re talking about writing!

      On Tue, May 21, 2013 at 12:26 PM, SERENDIPITY

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  3. Not sure I was ever, or would have been, much of a fiction writer, but the grounding reality of childbirth and of supporting myself and those children put a quick end to any ability I may ever have had for it. Still, I loved my work as an editor and occasional writer of technical non-fiction. I savored each well-crafted turn of phrase and, in the course of 30 years, perhaps composed a few. Now, in retirement, I still write a bit but mostly take my pleasure in finding typos like one author’s unfortunate substitution of “tempura” for “tempera,” which sadly resulted in a squadron of children painting with “tempura paints.” (Painting shrimp, one might hope.)

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    • Editing is a gift too, especially the ability to edit non-destructively. I always re-read the bio of Max Perkins in case I start to forget. Where were you when I was desperate for someone to edit my damned book? Oh well. I may have a real puglished (and desperate for an editor) client for you if you are interested. I reviewed her book and her publisher doesn’t have editors, just proofreaders … and she’s knows she needs an editor, just hard to find (a) a good one and (b) an affordable one!

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  4. In ref to paragraph, Books need to be….. You are so right. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the words or talent to write the words but still have the urge to write something and if it is writing manuals then so be it. There are also many people that can not digest good writing so they don’t read anything but manuals. WP fills the need to write something and anything for so many people whether anyone reads their blog or not, it doesn’t matter to them. As for me…..I love to read books of history and adventure, but don’t have a great talent for writing. My photos are my words and my blog lets me weave little stories about the photos so they don’t just sit on my computer till I pass and someone hits Delete. My writing is an ongoing learning experience and I know it will change over time as I put pen to paper so to speak.
    Have you read Diana Gabaldon? Now that is a women with a talent for words! Good blog today!

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    • I’m not a fiction writer. I always wanted to be one, but I have no aptitude for plots or action. I can write narrative and dialogue, but my characters never DO anything. They bore even me. I wish the people lecturing on how to write were really writing as well as they lecture. They are overly absorbed in technique. Maybe someday they will realize obsessing on HOW while avoiding the doing of the thing is not getting them anywhere. Some of them might might be terrific editors. I’m a MUCH better copy editor than a writer. Not a proofreader — different skill — but the ability to take someone else’s material and make it sound like the author meant it to sound without making it sound like ME. It’s probably my greatest gift … but publishers stopped hiring editors a long time ago. Proofreaders still have a place, but most editors work freelance and are lucky to eke out a living. Someone decided we don’t need them … but every author needs a good editor, especially those who think they don’t! Editing your own work is very difficult. You never see it as others do. It’s your baby. How can you?

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      • At least you recognize your skills, where others don’t. I agree some authors need an editor. I always thought that authors did everything themselves until I read Diana Gabaldons compendium. She writes the stories and her editor helps her weave them together. It is probably very costly to have an editor, so unless an author has what it takes to get a best seller, then they have to do everything themselves.

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