Monday, May 11, 2009

A little, miracle word

Here's an excerpt from a book on creating writing that I was reading by Elizabeth George. I've read several books on the craft of writing over the years and when I come across some good, wise advice I like to jot it down. I think what she says here is particularly useful because most people fall into this trap. We can't help it. So often we're taught to do it at Primary School.

"Sometimes a writer just starting out thinks that she needs to be especially creative with her tag lines, believing that the repetition of 'said' lacks snap and personality. Actually, 'said' is a little miracle word that no-one should abandon. When a writer uses 'said' in a tag line, the reader's eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb - providing it's the word 'said', simply gets discarded. To a large extent so do 'asked', 'answered' and 'replied.'
But that isn't the case with all those fancier tag lines (snarl, moan, snap, hiss, wail, whine, whimper, shout, groan, sneer, growl, etc.) These call attention to themselves. You must use them with the realisation that they will leap out at the reader. When the writing is really doing its job, the reader will be aware that someone is shouting, snarling, thundering, moaning and groaning. The scene will build up to it so the writer doesn't have to use obvious words to indicate the manner in which the speaker is speaking."

This is so true. It's part of the best advice I've received over the years, which is that simplicity adds strength, and complexity and wordiness often weakens. When I mentioned this to a group of Primary School teachers once when I was talking about editing your own work, they were very surprised but they could see the wisdom behind it. "We always give students extra ticks for being descriptive and the longer the word, the better."

I've also learned to steer of adverbs in most cases. Those are the frilly words that describe a verb. Some writer once mentioned that they sound so great and descriptive but are an author's downfall. Words such as sadly, angrily, happily, merrily and furiously all should get the flick.

"The mouse scurried hastily behind the clock." Of course he did! Do you need to mention it? That's implicit in the word "scurried." "The mouse scurried behind the clock," will suffice.
Same with, "Grandpa chuckled indulgently at his grandchildren." It's good to come across advice that helps us to relax and be less complex rather than more.


  1. I recently dealt with this issue when I was writing my story for that contest I entered. I took something that happened in my own life and turned it into fiction, which I am starting to like more and more all the time. I think you have mentioned it before that with fiction, you (the writer) are in control of the story's destiny. So I let the story turn and end how I wanted it to, not how it really happened. Perhaps that is more like historical fiction. Anyway ... one of the lines I had written sounded too wordy for me, so I changed it. Todd had read the story prior to my editing and said he liked the line just as I first had it. I reluctantly changed it and I'm certain that line will haunt me for awhile! Not that it will make or break my story but I can just imagine a judge saying, "Oooh, this line is way too wordy, throw this story out!" (LOL!)

    Hope you had a good Mother's Day! Enjoy your week - Kate

    P.S. By the way, when we were in Leavenworth, WA, we met a couple from Tasmania on tour of the western U.S. They were really nice and we had lots to talk about. We mentioned our friends in Australia, of course! It's such a small world, isn't it?

  2. There is a very fine line between wordy and descriptive and very often we teeter on both sides. :o)