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.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.
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.
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.
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?