Tag Archives: writing rules

You Probably Don’t Fear Adverbs as Much as You Think You Do.

Every now and then, I just can’t resist a rant about hyper-devotion to “rules.” The many lists of THINGS YOU MAY NOT DO and surprising admonitions from writing-group colleagues (Eeek! A sentence that ends with a preposition!) remind me that such hyper-devotion thrives.

My topic today is adverbs. We’ve all been scolded about our adverbs, especially those frightful -ly words. I’ve been sensitized to the point that those two letters set sirens blaring in my writerly mind—even as here when the -ly word is not an adverb. The spirit of Stephen King will haunt you. Strunk and White will be over to flog you this afternoon.

Like all writing rules, this one should be applied judiciously. (Or should I say “with judicious attention?” Whatever for?) The slightest perusal of some excellent fiction reminds us that even the cursed -ly words have a place. For example, here’s a short passage from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. Theo is describing horseplay he and his close friend Boris indulge in:

I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong idea. (pages 300-301)

I could say a lot about this excerpt, not just about its use of -ly adverbs but also about how blithely it runs afoul of all sorts of rules. But here I want to note one quality that the passage owes to its adverbs: how natural, how human, how conversational, it sounds. The expressions sinfully adulterated by -ly adverbs are examples of the way people actually talk.

Yes, you could take out three of the four and lose very little. But these are common expressions by which we normally, instinctively, express exactly what Theo is grappling with. The emphasis added by “absolutely” and its counterpoint, the qualification inserted by “fairly,” lace in Theo’s discomfort, his lack of confidence in his own judgment. We’re all often “fairly sure” about some things, we all often want to be “absolutely sure” about others. The nuances differentiating those attitudes, so common in our everyday handling of our emotions, are the “very little” we lose.

The value of what’s lost by a too-pious fear of adverbs comes through even more vividly in a delightful short article I recently summarized for my other blog, College Composition Weekly. In this blog, I report on scholarship about teaching college writing from major journals in the field. My latest entry was Peter Wayne Moe’s “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences” from the journal Composition Studies.

Moe, who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, urges writing teachers to look beyond the gems produced by the “greats” to value the day-to-day work that unremarkable sentences do and to recognize how even first-year college writers naturally and skillfully use the tools such everyday language supplies. The article explores how choice of subject, insertion of parenthetical asides, the use of “and” and “but” all convey how the writer “places” ideas in relation to each other. His short section on adverbs I found particularly rich.

He deals only peripherally with the -ly words, focusing instead on the kinds of adverbs that disguise themselves. Adverbs, he notes, are the stuff of context. They are the scene-setters, the clarifiers, the words that position the content in the nexus from which meaning derives. He provides a striking illustration of the work that adverbs do.

Here’s a student sentence. The student is writing about classroom activities following the 2016 election:

Often times we talk about race, gender and identity and my professor is always willing to share her opinions on these issues. After the election, she firmly expressed her political views to our class.

Setting aside views on whether this teacher should have expressed her views, firmly or otherwise, here’s what Moe does that speaks to a writer’s craft: “These sentences could be pared of their adverbs and prepositional phrases [all of these prepositions are adverbial] and would remain grammatically sound—”

We talk and my professor is willing to share her opinions. She expressed her political views.

When we strip these adverbial elements, including “firmly,” Moe writes, “everything is lost. The sentences are decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (page 88). And I would suggest that in the subtle context that the adverbial components supply, we can see a hint of how the student feels about her teacher’s actions, a hint missing from the denuded lines.

I suppose if this student were John Updike, she could have come up with a single, forceful verb that would do the work of “always willing to share,” including the delicate emphasis embedded in that “always,” and we would applaud her, call her the next Updike. But I love Moe’s attention in this article to how we all speak and write everyday and how much work that ordinary writing can do if we use all the resources it provides.

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Filed under College writing, grammar rules, Myths and Truths, style, Writing and teaching writing

To This I Say Amen!!

I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.

The grammar policeman will enforce the grammar rules!

Visit from the Writing Police!

I bet you have an opinion on this!

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Filed under Editing, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, self editing, Self-publishing, style, What Not To Do in Writing Novels, Writing

A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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