Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Get Out of My Way: The Awkward Things We Do to Avoid Certain Words

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing rules can drive us crazy. Don’t do this, never do that. To avoid things we’ve been told not to do, we sometimes perform writing gymnastics that strain our creative muscles. Instead of making a sentence better, we mess it up. Adding words when we ought to be trimming them out.

It's not always easy to spot these either, because we've been trained that X is bad. So getting rid if X has to be good. Even when it's not.

If you find yourself in a literary game of Twister with your manuscript, take a step back and see if you’re trying too hard to avoid one of those “rules.”

The most common one has to be…

Don’t Use Adverbs
Avoiding an adverb is usually a good thing, and sometimes it does indeed require adding more words. But if you’re spending a lot of time describing minutia of an action, there’s a decent chance you’re overworking it. Maybe it’s better to either leave the adverb in or cut it out entirely.
Something about the two men from the CDC seemed fishy. Jane looked surreptitiously around the room, but everything seemed in order.

Something about the two men from the CDC seemed fishy. She lowered her head and pretended to fix her hair while she peeked under her lashes, her eyes darting to and fro, trying to scan the room without looking like she was scanning the room. Everything seemed in order.
Is the second better or worse? In some passages, maybe you do want those extra words to show an aspect of the character. In others, one more long passage might be too much and bog the scene down. Don’t just look at the one spot—see how the entire piece flows.

Other rules that can tangle up your words:

Don’t Use Names Over and Over

Sometimes we need to identify the same person several times in a passage, and it can get awkward. To avoid this, we’ll often find other ways to identify that character. The man, the girl, use a last name, use a title. If you’re wracking your brain to think up another name for the same person, you might be better off finding ways to streamline the paragraph instead and eliminate those extra name references.

Don’t Use a Lot of Dialog Tags

It’s true that elaborate dialog tags like “he intoned” and “she reintegrated” do get distracting, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them completely. In trying to get rid of them, you might end up with choppy and disjointed sentences composed of dialog and action shoved together. Those tags, even the boring “she said” variety, often add necessary beats to a sentence’s rhythm.

Don’t Infodump

Yes, infodumps are bad, but if the way to get rid of them is to add lines of irrelevant information between otherwise good sentences, then you’re just bogging down your prose. Just like in high school, one topic per paragraph please. If you need to do a little dumping to move the scene forward, that’s preferable to a lot of weird info stuck in strange places.

It’s easy to try too hard, especially when we’re revising. All those rules are running through our minds and we want to make sure our writing is the best it can be. But writing is more than rules, and the sound and flow of the page is more important. If you’re having trouble with a passage, maybe you’re trying too hard to avoid what was the right word in the first place.

Even if all the rules said it was wrong.

Have you ever made a mess trying to avoid a certain word?


  1. Great post, and definitely something worth remembering. Oh, and do you know what's worse than reading a three paragraph info-dump? Reading a perfectly good, steamy sex scene and having random lines of background information and plot points thrown in between the good bits.

  2. I fell for the classic "show, don't tell," which made me feel I had to show everything - including cleverly using license plates to tell where the story takes place. Ack.

  3. Jo and maine's comments cracked me up (background during sex...that's funny).

    I just finished commenting over at the Piedmont Grill about LYs.

    I think rules are a compromise.

    The best rule, is don't over-do anything.


  4. These are all great tips. And it's amazing how many words you can cut if you focus on these type of things and the redundant word list you posted once.

  5. I just did a post on adverbs today and I couldn't agree more. Your first paragraph was so much better than the second. I don't like long-winded showing and if one word can take the place of 4,5,6 or 7, then I'm all for it.

    Once we know the rules, I think some of them can be broken for the better.

  6. I've made all these mistakes at some point. Live and learn!

  7. You should see the notes my editor has made on my book! I've broken all of these rules, though I've managed to avoid using "he exclaimed" or anything similar. My problem is all the nodding and smiling going on. My characters act like doped-up grinning morons sometimes!

  8. Great imagery! I tend to sprain POV more often than not during cutthroat games of Literary Twister.

  9. Excellent points. Thank you. :)

  10. George Orwell wrote some brilliant rules on clear writing, like never use a long word when a short one will do, and never use foreign or scientific word if you can think of a everyday English equivalent. (I'm looking at a tatty printout stuck on my wall, but I'm sure you can google teh full list) But he ends the list - "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." Rules. There for breaking.

  11. Jo, oh man, that's terrible, LOL. Great example though.

    Maine, how could I have forgotten show don't tell! You're so right. I need to add that, thanks!

    Mac, I agree there. Sometimes you do need to break the rules do what's best for the story.

    Natalie, thanks! Cutting really is easier than most folks think. Most of the time it's the little things that can go and you don't hurt the overall story.

    Anne, me either, though sometimes you can go too far the other way and kill a sentence. I like to write tight, so I've been guilty of this quite a few times :)

    Stephsco, same here. Gotta skin those knees before we can run, right?

    Paul, I'm guilty of the nodding and smiling thing. I always have to check that after a first draft. They're some of my placeholder words.

    Lari, one of the hubby's favorite quotes is "never use a big word when a diminutive one will do."

  12. I don't get the adverb 'rule' - if it's trying to discourage over use then fair enough, but it's one of those things that those with no taste will use to attack good writing.

    ... a bit like most of Strunk & White, now I come to think of it.

  13. "Don’t Use Names Over and Over" can cause viewpoint problems, especially in a close viewpoint where the character mentioned is a friend or relative. I see this a lot in manuscripts for children's books, where the parent is called by the first name or Mr./Mr. Last Name. If the viewpoint character would think of his/her parent as "my mother" or "Mom," then that's what you should use.

    I also find it distracting when writers of adult fiction refer to "the older woman" and so forth when describing a conversation between mother and daughter or two close friends. Unless you're using a very distant omniscient viewpoint (or your main character is describing a conversation between women she barely knows), that's authorial intrusion.

  14. Great post Janice! The adverb kills me. I use adverbs kind of like place holders in my story and then I go back and try to take them out. But, you are right, sometimes I just make a mess of the pacing.

  15. Yes, oh yes. Great post and reminder that sometimes keeping things simple means leaving that one adverb that sums it up so well.

    The other one that kills me is "was". Even when it's appropriate I try and reword to not use it.

    ;) Thanks!

  16. I'm still in the learning stages of writing. This is a wonderful help. And thanks for putting the examples in there. It helps!

  17. This is a great post! I have a list of words I always search & destroy during line edit. Sometimes they actually work better than "fixing" them, though, so they get to stay.

  18. Very good post! Writing rules drive me crazy for that very reason...they may always "work", and prevent really bad writing--but they can often also prevent great writing from happening.

  19. This post is so helpful! You know, in my first drafts, I tend to use really big words. And then my CPs/friends would look at it and be like, "what is that? What does that mean?". So, in the end, my word count drops about 10% because those words--that already were overused--were taken out. :)

  20. "Reading a perfectly good, steamy sex scene and having random lines of background information and plot points thrown in between the good bits."

    Fans of the HBO series GAME OF THRONES -- which does exactly this with character dialogue during its sex scenes -- have taken to calling this "sexposition".

  21. Dunx, the adverb rule evolved because so many new writers used them badly that it became easier for agents and editors to just say "don't use them." So it kinda stuck. But when used well they work same as any other word.

    Faith, exactly the point of the post :) If we get too caught up in the rules and forget the story itself, it can really stifle your creativity.

    Stephen, I did notice that in Game of Thrones. It actually worked better on screen I think. It added to the absurdity of it and often gave it a creepy vibe.

  22. well said! I've often written stuff and later thought, 'this really just sounds like you were trying to avoid saying that'. It's good to know I'm not the only one who falls into this sneaky trap.

    My policy on rules is that, it's good to know them. That way you can make a deliberate decision to break them :-)


  23. Janice, you perfectly described what is a BIG part of my past and present frustrations when it comes to revision.

    It really can be hard to know sometimes.

    If your're being too critical of yourself or get so invested in the mixed feedback from others, that you unfairly belittle your own judgments and interests.

    Since as you say through this post, it's not wrong to use these "forbidden" tricks when they're used sparingly and/or in the correct ways, and especially in the case of dialogue tags and "ly" adverbs in general, NOT to overdo them.

    I once wrote a story that had more adverbs ending in "ly" than was necessary, but there was one passage where I couldn't forgo the "ly" adverb or risk breaking tense.

    But since it was now the one and ONLY 'ly' adverb in the whole story, after I cut out all the others, and there was no other clear way to do that scene without breaking from past to present tense (Something I still do sometimes to avoid sounding like a dawdling nitwit story wise, you know?)

    I think readers could live with one adverb the whole story, when before, there were 19 of them.

  24. I have hundreds of adverbs in THE SHIFTER. There's nothing wrong with them if they're the right word for the sentence. As you found, cutting them out can sometimes mess the line up. It's only when they're being used as lazy writing that they cause trouble. When they're just placeholder words.

  25. Can I marry this post?

    I was told by a Certain Publisher to pre-edit all of the dialogue tags in a novel into 'said', where at all possible. So like a good little girl I went through and did so.

    I wanted to cry when I proof-read it. There weren't all that many dialogue tags, but when asked/replied becomes said/said, even if it only happens once, it's glaringly obvious that it's there because it's a 'rule' and not actually good writing.

    I'm hoping when the press-side edits come in they'll just assume that those are places where it wasn't possible ::looks innocent::

  26. Cecilia, ouch, sorry to hear that. (and yes, you may marry this post if your state allows it). "Where at all possible" is your out there. What's possible is your call :)