Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ten guidelines for better writing - that work

Had another writer as a house guest during Hogmanay and, inevitably, much talk followed about how to write better. Death to adverbs was mutually agreed upon, but we disagreed about the need to use the word that. When I trained as a journalism [during the Jurassic era, IIRC], it was thrashed into me that the word that is unnecessary nine times out of ten. I've spent all the years since scoring the word out of my writing, wherever possible. The other scribe described a list of guidelines for better prose they had once been given by an editor, attributed to author Elmore Leonard. If you want to read the full list you'll have to go here, but below are a few of favourites.
3. Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with she asseverated, and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb said...

...he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances full of rape and adverbs.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


SK said...

Gosh. I agree with the advice, but not the reasonng -- it seems to come from some bizarre place of self-loathing for oneself as a writer, a desire to becoming invisible, a kind of literary television screen through which the story is seen rather than a stained-glass window, beautiful in itself. Which is almost exactly the opposite of what I looks for when reading: I read for prose style, and something as dry and invisible and devoid of writerly personality as Mr Leonard seems to be aiming at would repel me totally.

Skullen said...

Ever read Midnight's Children?