Category Archives: Word Use

The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.

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Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

– – – – –
This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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Oil And Vinegar, Not Oil And Water

Oil and water don’t mix no matter how much a person might try. On the other hand, oil and vinegar have properties that allow them to blend temporarily. When shaken together, along with all the appropriate spices, they can create a delicious dressing, a delight for the palate.

Poetry and fiction work the same way. Yes, they are separate entities and mostly stay in their own literary niches, but there are times and ways that the two can come together to enhance a story. Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to discuss ways in which poetry can make fiction better.

One obvious instance occurs when a novelist includes poems or songs in his work. J. R. R. Tolkien utilized numerous songs in Lord of the Rings — from those Tom Bombadil sang to the ones Bilbo wrote as part of his story and those the elves sang on most occasions.

Besides incorporating poems as a whole into fiction, an author can utilize poetry’s various parts to spice up his prose.

Poetry, as you may know, is constructed using a number of sound devices and/or a number of imagery devices. It is these that can give prose a boost, taking it beyond the mundane and making it fun, insightful, or even beautiful.

Sound Devices

Many people think of rhyme when they think of poetry. This is certainly one of the sound devices poets may use, but it is not the only one. Others include alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, even repetition.

Rhythm is probably the most popular device used by novelists. When poets utilize rhythm they are trying to create a pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables, such as you hear in nursery rhymes or children’s songs:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Novelists who pay attention to rhythm, however, utilize variety and flow more than patterns. Not only should a line say what the novelists wants it to say, but it should sound the way she wants it to sound.

High energy action scenes use shorter sentences. Fragments even. Leisurely scenes may consist of longer sentences and paragraphs filled with description or reflection, utilizing parenthetical material, perhaps — whether created by using em dashes, parentheses or even a colon. The key is, the rhythm of the sentence fits the content and the context.

When appropriate, an author may incorporate alliteration — the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words:

They muscled the boat to another bend, but as they navigated the curve the vessel rammed to a stop with a heavy clunk.

Consonance is similar but limited to the repetition of consonant sounds and not limited to the beginning of a word.

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

In the same way, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

Onomatopoeia — the formation of a word from the sound associated with it — is another common device. In the earlier line above, the word clunk is an example of onomatopoeia.

None of these devices occurs with as much frequency in fiction as in poetry, and when an author does employ them it should be with purpose. The sounds should strengthen the picture that the meaning of the words has already created.

Imagery

Creating these word pictures can be more effective with the help of poetry’s devices: similes, metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperbole, and so on.

Similes and metaphors create comparisons between two usually unrelated objects for the sake of amplifying a particular trait of the item being described. Similes do so in a more obvious way by announcing the comparison with a preposition — like or as.

“His hair like moldy hay,” part of a line from the poem “The Highwayman,” makes an effective, and announced, comparison. On the other hand, “The serpentine road crawled to the top of the rise” doesn’t declare, the road was like a snake, but instead shows it. Both create vivid word pictures.

Personification gives human or organic properties to inanimate objects. Even phrases like “the heart of the tale” utilize personification.

Symbols stand for and represent something else. In A Christmas Carol the chains Marley’s ghost carried around represented his sins from his greedy life.

Hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration for effect. Example: The swarm of crows blackened the sky.

When using these imagery devices, a novelist should stretch to create ones that fit his characters and setting rather than relying on common ones already in existence. Many of these have become cliches.

In summary, good prose — lyrical prose — will utilize some of the same devices that poetry does. One way to become more familiar with these devices is to read poetry. Another is to write it.

What devices do you purposefully use in your prose? Have you done so because you write poetry or have you learned to do so because of what you read?

If you’d like to learn more about poetry, Owl Editing has an interesting page on understanding poetry — organized a little differently and in more depth than what I’ve presented in brief here.

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Transitions

Transitions are nearly invisible, or should be, whether in fiction or non-fiction. However, they serve a vital purpose. They usher the reader logically from point A to point B. They are the guideposts that make your writing clear because they establish the logical connections from one idea to another or from one event to the next.

Transitions include such words or phrases as therefore, next, then, however, first, in addition, on the other hand, for example, later, once, now, and so on.

Unfortunately, transitions can go awry in two different ways. First, a writer may fall in love with a particular transition and overuse it. Here’s an example from an excerpt of “The Other Open Door” with the transitions altered from the original:

If she didn’t love [her brother] so much, and owe him so much, she’d happily let him believe his gruff exterior had her fooled. Anyway, she knew how the conversation would end—the same way all their discussions about God ended. Anyway, after belittling her and dredging up the past, Darnel would yell and storm from the room. Anyway what made her think he’d listen today? What made her think anyone would ever listen to what she had to say about God?

Anyway, as her rangy brother shuffled toward the back of the house, that open door coaxed her, suggesting — promising? — this time would be different.

When a transition is repeated over and over, as the word anyway was above — even when that repetition isn’t in such a small section — it draws attention to itself. Rather than serving to seamlessly connect one part of the story with another, the transition becomes a distraction and disrupts the flow.

A second problem with transitions occurs when an author chooses an inappropriate word. In the following fable “The Cat And The Fox” I’ve altered transitions (words in red) to illustrate the point.

Surprisingly a cat and a fox were having a conversation. The fox, who was a conceited creature, boasted how clever she was. ‘Why, I know at least a hundred tricks to get away from our mutual enemies, the dogs,’ she said.

‘I know only one trick to get away from dogs,’ said the cat. ‘You should teach me some of yours!’

‘Well, maybe some day, when I have the time, I may teach you a few of the simpler ones,’ replied the fox airily.

Now they heard the barking of a pack of dogs in the distance. The barking grew louder and louder – the dogs were coming in their direction! Later the cat ran to the nearest tree and climbed into its branches, well out of reach of any dog. ‘This is the trick I told you about, the only one I know,’ she called down to the fox. ‘Which one of your hundred tricks are you going to use?’

The fox sat silently under the tree, wondering which trick she should use. Before she could make up her mind, the dogs arrived. They fell upon the fox and tore her to pieces.

A single plan that works is better than a hundred doubtful plans.

If you plug in the correct transitions — one day, just then, at once — you’ll see that the story reads more smoothly, with a logical flow.

In conclusion, transitions aren’t showy — they’re actually meant to be invisible. When a reader starts to see them, that’s when they aren’t doing their job.

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Tears And Smiles

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a history teacher who had a verbal tick — that is, he repeated a pet phrase over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was he said (something like “on a daily basis” or “so to speak”), but I do remember that on some days, a group of us would keep a running tally to see how many times he resorted to his standby. The very repetition of his words distracted us from his intent.

Novelists can distract readers in the same way by giving their characters stock or repeated responses to their circumstances. Two overused emotional reactions are crying and smiling.

Earlier this year, in a blog post about what fiction editors look for, agent Rachelle Gardner took a look at characters. Among the list of excellent points, she included this:

Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!) [font color change added for emphasis]

That resonated with me. I’d read a novel not so long ago that drove me nuts because every character, men as well as women, cried over everything. I mean, everything! They cried if they were worried, fearful, excited, grieving, in love, in hate, when they were tempted, when they were worshiping.

The fact is, people do cry in all those circumstances and more. But in the same way that characters have individual physical features and particular voices, they have unique mannerisms and expressions of emotion. Not everyone will “choke back a tear.” Not everyone will have “a tear squeeze from her eye” or “slide down her cheek.” Some people go stoic rather than cry in public. Some people use tricks to stop themselves from crying, like biting the inside of their cheek or taking a drink or making a joke. Some people try to hide the fact that they’re crying and others call attention to it: “Oh, look at me acting like such a big baby.”

The point is, expressions of emotion need to be as varied as the author’s cast of characters. No two people feel exactly the same about the unique circumstances they go through, and their unique personalities mean they will respond differently even if the circumstances are similar.

Smiling is the same as crying. Some characters smile when they meet someone new, when they get a raise, when their boyfriend brings them flowers, when dinner is ready, when they wake in the morning, when they turn down the bed at night, when the police arrest the villain, when the mom lets the son drive the car home, and on and on.

The sad thing about so much smiling is that it weakens the expression of emotion. Some things deserve a smile. Some things don’t.

Further, smile has a number of good synonyms, each with a nuance, that can add meaning to the emotional expression in the scene. Consider these alternatives, for example: beam, grin, dimple, twinkle; smirk, simper; leer.

The key when depicting a character expressing emotion is to know what that particular individual will do in that particular circumstance.

An outgoing, expressive character, for instance, may still behave in a reserved way at a funeral for someone he doesn’t know well. Or a shy person may act rather effusive if someone she knows and loves is getting married to the man of her dreams.

But if she is effusive at the bridal shower, at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding, at the reception, when the couple returns from their honeymoon … quite frankly, most readers aren’t going to believe this character is shy. In addition, if her expression of joy is the same in each of those settings, readers may dread seeing her name in the opening sentence of a paragraph, because quite frankly, even effusive expression becomes boring when it is overused.

In summary, keep these in mind:

    * Emote with care. 😉
    * Avoid overusing emotional responses such as crying or smiling.
    * Particularize your character’s emotional response based on their personality and the circumstances into which you’ve put them.
    *Finally, stretch your vocabulary so that your prose has variety.

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Word Discrimination, Part 2

Like adverbs, adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. To illustrate beautiful prose in Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, I quoted a passage in my recent review that included this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

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Word Discrimination, Part 1

Are some words better than others? Are certain parts of speech to be shelved, or even banned from our writing? You’d think so based on some of the most highly recommended writing instruction books available.

Not too long ago, an editor at a writers’ conference referred to one such book as his writing bible. The book in question? Self-editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This slender volume does, in fact, point to one particular group of words and advises against its use. Mostly.

I’m referring to adverbs, especially those that end in –ly. Here is the pertinent instruction:

Be on the lookout for –ly adverbs, for the sake of sophistication …

When you self-edit, you can root out these verb/adverb combinations like the weeds they are. The weak verbs that come to mind so readily can then be jettisoned in favor of stronger, more specific verbs — verbs that can say exactly what you want to say without help.

There are exceptions, of course … but even where the adverbs aren’t the product of lazy writing, they can still look like lazy writing, just because –ly adverbs have been used so often by so many hacks in the past (pp. 159-160).

Clearly, this piece of writing advice has merit. Verbs and nouns (subjects, in particular) are the centerpieces of every sentence and should be as strong as possible — that is, they should be as specific as possible so that they evoke a particular image.

For example, notice how the image changes for each of the following sentences:

    (1) The reporter sauntered into the office.
    (2) The reporter dashed into the office.
    (3) The reporter crept into the office.

Three different images, but the only word that’s different is the verb.

Would walked lazily, walked quickly, walked slowly have the same power to transform the sentence? Not at all. The right verb is infinitely more powerful than a “catch all” verb combined with a describer.

That being said, I think it’s important to mention two things here. First, Browne and King themselves said there are exceptions. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule that must be obeyed (for more information on this topic see “Are Rules Really Rules?”).

Secondly, there is subjectivity involved. One person may think the use of an –ly adverb has the appearance of lazy writing, is unsophisticated, or is a weed that needs to be uprooted, and another reader may think that construction is clear and precise.

My recommendation is two-fold. For beginning writers, after you have finished the rough draft of your story, search out –ly adverbs and eliminate them by utilizing stronger, more specific verbs. Without exception. Resistance to this step can lead a writer astray. It is too easy for us to rationalize, convincing ourselves that our adverbs are the ones that add clarity and precision. Digging out better verbs can be hard, time-consuming work, but better verbs equal better writing.

For more advanced writers, use –ly adverbs with intentionality. They might be necessary for clarity, but also for sentence rhythm or for conveying a character’s unique voice. The rule of thumb should be that adverbs you keep must add value to your work.

A final word. When critiquing someone else’s work, writers shouldn’t be too quick to apply a “writing rule.” As always, the overriding guide should be whether or not the piece (sentence, paragraph, chapter, or story) works. If an author paints a vivid scene incorporating an –ly adverb, it is not “wrong.” There are, in fact, no banned parts of speech. Adverbs, like other words, can work for the fiction writer, but first we must demonstrate mastery over strong verbs before we go about describing them.

Next time, adjectives.

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Repetition and Redundancy

At first glance, someone might think the title to this post is redundant, but these two phenomena—repetition and redundancy—are actually different and therefore I am not truly saying the same thing using different words. Indeed, the one can sometimes serve the writing whereas the other is always deadly.

First a look at repetition. One repetition problem occurs when the author repeats an action. The character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from … You get the idea. These incidents may be set in different places, but the plot point is repetitious.

However, repetition primarily occurs at the “word choice” level. Either in dialogue or in narrative, the author relies on the same word over and over, either throughout the manuscript or throughout a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence.

Repetition draws attention to the word—and therefore, the person or object—that is being repeated. If the object isn’t intended to be the focus, the repetition draws attention from what the readers should be thinking about.

One author I edited used the word “door” so often in one scene, it was hard to focus on what was happening that moved the story forward. The character walked to the door, turned the door handle, opened the door, slammed the door, went to the car door, opened the car door, slid through the open door, closed the door. And yes, I may be exaggerating, but not by much. 😉

Even names can be repeated to the point of distraction.

I remember one manuscript I critiqued in which the two characters, who were the only ones in the room, used each other’s names in every line of dialogue throughout a scene.

Repetition’s ability to draw attention, however, can be something an author uses intentionally. Abraham Lincoln’s short Gettysburg Address is a wonderful example of the positive use of repetition. Notice the words I’ve marked.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are actually others that I didn’t mark—devotion, dead, consecrate, conceived, rather, It is, for us. The overall effect is a piece that is poetic and nearly musical. The repetition creates a rhythm as well as a focus.

Generally such an extensive use of repetition isn’t appropriate for fiction, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. There may be a highly emotional piece of internal monologue that lends itself to just such a strong use of repetition.

Redundancy is a different animal. Rather than repeating an event or words, an author employing redundancy is rewording what he has already said. I elaborated on its use in fiction (without naming it) in my last post (see point number five).

Sadly, redundancy has no positive use that I’ve discovered. Instead, it slows a story, at best, and at worst, insults the intelligence of readers, though the author may be more in doubt about his own ability to get his ideas across than about his readers’ ability to comprehend what he’s saying.

In short, repetition must be used judiciously and redundancy, not at all.

– – – – –
For a more complete treatment of redundancy, see “Redundancy And Sleep.”

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Vocabulary And Word Choice

An author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I recently realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s newest release, The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer, weekly sharing a new set of words on her blog, Forensics and Faith (see for example her most recent vocabulary post) and daily tweeting Today’s Word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

    Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.”

    – from The Skin Map, p. 18

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. He could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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