Sunday, September 4, 2011

My was-were-had-as-ing-ly Edit, Part II

By John May

In this continuation, we’ll look at some other words and word types often worthy of slaughter.

As and ing: Two problems. One, hack writers love ‘em and sprinkle ‘em out with abandon—not exactly great company. Two, they weaken action. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, another widely acclaimed book on craft, Renni Browne and Dave King state, “…both of these constructions take a bit of action (She pulled off her gloves) and tuck it away in a dependent clause (Pulling off her gloves…). This tends to place your action at one remove from your reader, to make the action seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.” They admit that some usage of ing and as are occasionally necessary to allow more structure variety and, sometimes, to avoid overly complex constructs but say, “… avoid the hack’s favorite construction unless you have a good reason for using them.”

While I sparingly use as and ing for variety or reduced complexity, I try to make sure they relate to the less important action in the sentence and use an active construct for the more important action. Example: As they made their way back to the helicopter, she ignored the deputy’s calls. The fact that she was ignoring the deputy is much more important and revealing of her state of mind than the simple act of returning somewhere.

Ly adverbs: The worst of the adverbs—as in: he said grimly. Again, from Browne and King, “Ly adverbs almost always catch the author in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself. If your dialogue doesn’t need props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even though it isn’t. There are a few exceptions to the principle—almost all of them adverbs that modify the verb 'said' such as he said softly or she said clearly. After all, you don’t say something grimly in the same sense as you say something softly. The grimness comes across by what you say and do—through word choice, body language, context—not by how you say it.”

I try to avoid as many adverbs (not just ly) and adjectives as possible. A noun that has a needed adjective built in is more vivid and reads faster than an adjective-noun combo (e.g., hovel vs. small, wretched home). This holds true for verbs with built-in adverbs (e.g., hurled vs. threw it hard). A wonderful tool for finding vivid words is Choose the Right Word by S.I. Hayakawa. A thesaurus on steroids. It doesn’t just provide a list of synonyms, it discusses in some depth the connotations and emotional and/or physical implications of each synonym—in essence, what are the built-in adverbs or adjectives?

Summary: It’s easier to write using lots of was-were-had-as-ing-ly words. Replacing them requires better writing—which is harder—and a larger vocabulary. Personally, I feel the edit is worth the effort.


monjon said...

My first thought was that it hardly seems worth the effort if one must be so mechanically inclined as to, as it were, get rid of all that had been initially influentially decisive.

Ginny said...

LOL, MJ. John, was this blog for me? ;-)