If we may, let's agree to shelve the discussion of dialogue for another post. Variations in grammar are a fantastic, maybe the best, way to make sure each of your characters sounds like a distinct individual. But that's a whole topic in itself.
I've included a fun exercise at the bottom of this post. Feel free to jump down there first and try it out.
The Much Maligned Adverb!
Did you know that adverbs have only been part of the English language for about 200 years? Everybody got along without them before that, and many modern languages contain few adverbs even today.
The workhorse of every language is the verb. Adverbs aren't evil, but they often are used to prop up a weak verb. For example, he walked slowly instead of he ambled. The quickest way to improve your writing is to spiff up your verbs. Each adverb is an awesome and useful red flag!!
Make sure every adverb is essential. Evaluate each one, and throw out as many as you can. I initially wrote absolutely necessary in the first sentence of this paragraph. Essential emphasizes my point more clearly. You don’t have to throw out every adverb. Just the weak ones. For example, I can't think of a better wording than more clearly, so it gets to stay! See if you can eliminate most adverbs by finding stronger verbs.
The Dreaded Gerund
The technical reason to avoid -ing verb forms is... technical. The gerund is designed to indicate simultaneity. In other words, two things happening at exactly the same time. A proper use of a gerund would be, His blood pounding, he walked toward the monument. The whole time he's walking toward the monument, his blood is pounding! Yes!
An incorrect use of a gerund would be, Going to the store, I saw a cat. The whole time you were going to the store? The logic doesn't work. Sometimes you can rework the sentence to include the word as or when and the simple past or present tense. When I went to the store, I saw a cat.
Why do gerunds matter? For two reasons. One is that even though the distinctions are minor, the subconscious mind of the reader will pick up the errors. They may have no idea what's wrong, but they will sense that something is off. Without realizing why, the reader may well think, "Hmm, this person isn't such a hot writer."
The second reason is even more subtle! Language has sound, and sounds matter even when we aren't reading out loud. Repeated -ing, -ing, -ing, especially at the beginning of several sentences, gets annoying. Poets sometimes spend hours working on the sound qualities of a stanza! Novelists can also learn to pay attention to how their words sound.
The Misunderstood Vague Pronoun!
Technical definition: a vague pronoun has no direct antecedent. For example, There were two men in the camp. Okay, the sentence isn't wrong, but what do the words there were contribute?? Nothing, nada, zip, diddly squat!
Two men sat by the campfire. Ahh… much better! Now we can picture them. Whew! As in this example, often you can just throw the problem words away.
When I was teaching journalism, if I saw any of the combinations there are, there was, there were, it is, it was, this is, this was, that is, that was, these are, these were, etc, I handed the article back for revision. Don't take my word for this precept. Ask Stephen King. The all-powerful PACING of your novel depends on eliminating the junk, and every single time (except in dialogue), these combinations are junk words!
To Be or Not To Be?
Why is the verb to be frowned on by creative writing teachers? The simple answer is that is, was, were, are give a writer their best red flags for finding and eliminating weak sentences.
Every writer uses the verb to be all the time. Everyone. If you've already tried the exercise at the bottom of this post, you know what I'm saying. But, using to be seven times on a page is not the same as using it fifty times!
In almost every sentence, you can find a more vivid, lively verb than to be. The to be verb forms are also a great red flag for -ing verbs and for vague pronouns. They may also signal passive voice. Four at one blow!! Weak, -ing, vague, passive — kaboom! Gone!
Pathetic Little Anemic Verbs
Your English/creative writing teacher may never have mentioned this problem. Some verbs in English have been around for so long that they have lost all specific meaning. A few examples are have, do, go, and move. Think of all the ways we use the verb have: I have two daughters [gave birth to]. I had an egg for breakfast [ate]. I have a blue car [own]. He had a cow [what???].
When you find you've used one of these meaningless verbs, just substitute the more precise verb that says what you meant in the first place.
A Fun Exercise
- Find a novel you like, preferably the same genre you write. Photocopy a double page from the middle of the book. This exercise is MUCH easier using a non-electronic, paper copy.
- Gather three highlight pens of different colors.
- Highlight all the adverbs in one color, all the -ing words in another color, and to be verbs in yet another.
- Now look near the to be verbs and underline any vague pronouns you find.
- Count how many you find of each and record on a piece of paper the number of:
to be verbs
- Take about two pages of your manuscript. Turn them upside down! Try not to read the text. Often we glide over problems because we’re so used to them.
- adverbs: Look for any word that ends in -ly and mark it with a highlight pen. Do you have a lot more color than the sample?? If you do, try to get rid of enough of yours to come close to the count in the sample.
- -ing words: Highlight any word with -ing (some will be okay words, like spring, ignore these in counting). Compare with the sample. Remember, you can keep some, just not too many. Try to match or beat the number in the sample.
- to be verbs: Highlight every form of the verb to be. Compare with the sample. Are you close, or even better?
- vague pronouns: Turn the page right side up and look carefully for vague pronouns near the to be verbs. Underline them. Now check your pages against the sample. How do you compare? You really don’t want ANY vague pronouns, and almost no to be verbs, so take a stab at eliminating ALL of them.
For the last step, you may want to start over with a fresh copy of your manuscript. Type in all the changes you’ve made from the above exercises, print out a new copy of the two pages, then try this last one:
- weak verbs: Stay right side up. Underline EVERY VERB. Examine each one – say it out loud, listen to the sound; does it communicate an emotion? Does it create a vivid picture? Replace any verbs that have lost their oomph. Remember that the verb carries the sentence!
Whatever you are already doing to your own satisfaction, pat yourself on the back. If you have fewer gerunds than Stephen King, woohoo! Remember that each of these foibles persists in everyone's writing. You just want to eliminate enough weaker constructions that you fall in line with your own favorite authors.
I can hear you screaming! "Who has time to do all this work? You can't mean for me to highlight every page of my manuscript like this!"
No, I don't suggest you spend the next three years highlighting and analyzing your manuscript page by page!
What you will find if you do this exercise even once is that you will develop a sensitivity to weaker writing. You'll be able to pace through your whole manuscript and eliminate many minor writing problems. As you edit the current manuscript, you'll internalize the red flags and the signals, and your next first draft will be closer to a third or fourth or even a final draft.
If you only want to write one book, you may prefer to pay someone else to edit it. If your goal is to produce many novels, putting in the time to fully edit the current manuscript will pay off for the rest of your writing career.
Did you try the exercise? Was it fun? Did you learn something about your own writing? This exercise is always a favorite at the Novel Writers Workshop. Even writers who are dismayed at first are also heartened to realize that fluent and powerful writing is within reach.
What writing hints can you share with fellow writers? Do you have tips and tricks that speed your manuscript along? Let's have a lively discussion in the comments! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.