Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I Never Met A Word I Didn't Like

It's that time again. Time for me to gripe about my pet peeves in the publishing biz! A while back I objected to the notion that it's wrong or ungrammatical to use the passive voice. Today I'm taking aim at the attempt to banish certain words or parts of speech from our writing.

Recently I received an invitation to leave a writing tip at the Blood Red Pencil. (This is great writing blog, by the way.) Over fifty authors responded. Many of the suggestions were excellent. They ran the gamut from writing craft to self-motivation. One comment, though, recommended going through your first draft and systematically eliminating all adverbs (or as she put it, all "-ly" words). This is the sort of recommendation that raises my blood pressure.

I understand the reasoning behind the rule. Adverbs are often over-used (she writes, turning to the passive to avoid pointing fingers at anyone in particular!) Sometimes an adverb serves as a crutch, a less effective method to convey meaning that would be better communicated by a stronger or more specific verb. However, adverbs, like all parts of speech, have a legitimate function. Arguing for their total elimination is no more reasonable than suggesting we should stop using conjunctions in order to avoid compound sentences.

Sometimes an adverb is just what you need. There's just no verb with the desired connotations. In other cases, the use of an adverb suggests a certain kind of character or sets a certain tone. In an action scene, too many adverbs will slow the reader down. If you want your tale to unfold at a more leisurely pace, adverbs contribute.

I recently wrote a story set in Victorian times. I used a fair number of adverbs, trying to capture the cadence of Victorian speech (and by extension, thought, as the story is written in the first person).

"I apologize for staring," I finally managed to choke out. "I did not expect..."

"Such beauty." Peter Hawthorne finished my sentence for me. "Such luxury. Given the state of the house and all. We understand. Alas, our means are sadly diminished. We prefer to lavish what resources we have on ourselves, on Clara of course, and on the interior. As you will see, if you'll join us by the fire."

He took my arm to lead me into the parlor. The gesture was terribly familiar, completely inappropriate when we had not even been formally introduced, but at the time I did not notice. My nostrils twitched as I caught a hint of his cologne or hair tonic, a sharp scent like new-mown grass. That was how close he was.

Finally managed. Sadly diminished. Terribly familiar. Completely inappropriate. Formally introduced. Five "-ly" adverbs in three paragraphs. If you removed them, however, I believe the tone would suffer:

The gesture was familiar, inappropriate when we had not even been introduced, but at the time I did not notice.

In my humble opinion, this sentence is less effective in fulfilling the goals of the narrative. It tells us less about the character, her education, her views of the world.

Another forbidden word appears to be "that", when used as a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause. For example:

The dress that Marilyn chose made her look like a high-class hooker.

Juliana struggled against the bonds that the Marquis had fastened around her wrists.

Recently I had an editor go through my story and strike out "that" in every single instance of this construction.

It's quite true that in the two sentences above, removing "that" doesn't hurt, and possibly tightens the prose. In some cases, however, particularly with more complex sentence structures, the extra word helps improve comprehensibility. It also affects the prosody of the sentence, that is, the rhythm or stress pattern.

Tears blurring her vision, Lucinda struggled to decipher the letter that the maid had so casually left on her dressing table.

Another overly general "rule" suggests that authors should avoid using the past or present progressive tense (usually phrased as "get rid of the -ing forms"). For instance:

Henry was brushing his teeth when the phone rang.

While Jared was tightening the ropes, Hervé rummaged through the toy box.

Once again, I'll agree that this form tends to be over-used. However, the progressive tenses cannot always be replaced by the simple past or present. The progressive is required when you want to communicate the notion of an ongoing action, especially in relation to some other completed action. Change the tense and you change the meaning.

There are other examples of rules that get me hot under the collar. I've actually read a recommendation that writers should strip out all adjectives! However, this post is getting a bit long, and I've got to go cook dinner. I'll leave you with some tongue-in-cheek advice from well-known journalist William Safire:

Do not put statements in the negative form.

And don't start sentences with a conjunction.

If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a

great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.

Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.

De-accession euphemisms.

If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.

Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

~William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"


Madeline Elayne said...

Oh, I love it when I get a chuckle first thing in the morning! I have to commit those "great rules of writing" to heart.

Hunting a manuscript for -ly adverbs, the word 'that' or other similar writing no-nos can be a helpful self-editing exercise. _Looking_ for is not the same as automatically deleting. I find that blindly following "better writing guidelines" can easily be used as an excuse not to give a manuscript the careful, thoughtful revision it deserves, and sadly can turn it into a garbled mess as easily (or more easily) as a tight, sleek bit of prose.

Thank you for another wonderful post, Lisabet, your gramatically-inspired writing never fails to make me smile!


elizabethcoldwell said...

There's also a danger that applying rules such as removing 'that', 'she', 'had been' or whatever an editor's particular pet peeve is results in making every single writer's voice sound the same. That might be what some publishing houses want, but I like to read (and write!) expansive sentences, or pick up a story and feel a writer's unique style and voice drawing me in. Okay, too many thats in this post, but hey...

Liz xx

PaulMcDermott said...

At the risk of boring people, I'm going to repeat (in part) a comment I made when you posted about [mis]use of the Passive Voice.
Passive Verbs are unavoidable when the 'main action' in a sentence is effected UPON the Subject BY another person or thing: example "The thought hit me ..." (You would never dream of saying "I hit the thought" - this would be the "Active" form of the sentence, and it doesn't MEAN anything!)

Anyone who has had even a single year of LATIN in their schooldays will appreciate that the Passive Voice is just as necessary as the Active form of a verb in certain situations, and in many cases will prove irreplaceable.

Many European languages which owe their origins to Latin have retained much closer links with the Passive Voice. French, for example, uses REFLEXIVE verbs which underpin the Passive origin of certain actions: for example, the verb "s'assoire" ( = se + assoire, 'e' elided for convenience of pronunciation) literally meaning "to sit [oneself] down" because logically YOU can't sit SOMEONE ELSE down, and nobody ELSE can sit YOU down. This is in truth a verb which in LATIN would only have been used in a PASSIVE Voice...

If only schools still TAUGHT Latin, there would be far fewer problems with grammatical rules and sentence structure!

On a second point raised, the use [and MISuse!] of "that" vs. the alternative "which". Guess what, we're back once again(!!!) to Latin rules...

"that" is a Demonstrative pronoun (you 'demonstrate' what you want to describe by POINTING at it)
"which" is a Relative pronoun: you are Relating a comment to a (person or thing) WHICH (or WHO) has already been 'referred' to earlier in the sentence, or in a sentence immediately prior to the one you are currently writing.
Simples, no?
Strike Two for the return of Latin teaching in schools!

Nina Pierce said...

Lisabet - I take all such advice with a grain of salt. There is no hard and fast way to write a sentence. Yes, passive verbs are just that...passive, but sometimes a sentence structure calls for it. Being a scientist at heart, this English stuff still eludes me. I write the way I want, judiciously using adverbs, the word "that" and "ing" verbs. But all of them have their place at different points within my story. No one should hold fast to a "rule".

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, everyone!

Thanks for your comments.

I also take these rules with a grain of salt - but sometimes editors can be REALLY persistent about this kind of thing. I do think there's a danger, as Liz pointed out, that everyone will begin to sound the same. To be honest, I find this is already true with quite a few authors of romance.

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