How We Talk About Writing Matters

Nothing—and I mean nothing—flips my switch like people posting misinformation, bad advice, and intellectual fallacies under the hashtag #writetip.

If you follow me, you probably already get that I am not fond of rules. When it comes to writing, I’m a stickler for grammar and beautiful use of language, but when it comes to style, I can enjoy a lot as long as you pay attention to the first two. And that’s why most lists of “Rules of Writing” drive me nuts. They address—or hope to address—issues of style, not technique. And they seem to promote the idea that there’s some secret formula, some Über-style that will make agents and editors alike gasp in admiration and admit the writer to the hallowed halls of publication.

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Another thing that puts my knickers in a twist is people parroting back these lists of rules who demonstrate no comprehension of what they actually mean or where they might have come from. When I see lists making sweeping generalizations about what you should and should not include in your manuscript, my immediate reaction is to ask, “Who made you the authority?” Because I notice these tweets seldom come from successful authors I respect, or for that matter have even heard of.

 Yesterday this popped up in my Twitter feed:

annoying tweet list

Of course, it got me going right from the start. I take exception to anyone telling me point blank what to delete from my manuscript. Some of those words and expressions may be overused by some writers. But there is no word or expression that is by nature “wrong,” or “bad” or “unnecessary.”

 Usually I ignore this stuff, because it just raises my blood pressure. Yesterday, I chose to address the person posting. I asked, “So, you don’t see any distinction between an action that is ongoing and one that has just begun?”

 Her response: “Well, sure, in the right context. But as a general rule it’s passive voice.”

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After I retrieved my jaw from my lap, I gently informed the poster that none of those items constituted passive voice and explained what passive voice actually means.  Her response: “I was speaking voice, not grammar. It’s static passive voice, but still, a majority of times, it needs to go.” I told her passive voice is a grammatical concern, not a stylistic one. Her response: “I think most people knew what I meant though. While technically, you’re correct, most people use the other term.”

Here I refrained from screaming, “THEN MOST PEOPLE ARE WRONG!!!”

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Later this happened:

annoying tweet 2

Do you see what’s going on here? I mean, aside from the backpedaling and justification. Really, people, how hard is it to admit you made a mistake and correct yourself? If you’re fighting about this, how do you take critique of your work? How are you ever going to cope with that hoped-for editor???

But that’s not my point. My point is the original poster did not have the language to talk about writing, and instead of acquiring it fell back on “I like to think most people know what I mean.”

What kind of attitude is that for a person who claims the use of words and language as her BUSINESS?

We are writers. Words are our medium. How we talk about what we do MAKES A DIFFERENCE. We need to pay attention, not only to the language in our stories, but the Meta-Language of writing, i.e., the words and terms we use to talk about what we do. There is absolutely no point in sharing rules about how to write if you don’t have any clarity of terms. These terms not only give us a common ground to discuss what we do, but also create an intelligible platform for sharing our work and ideas about our work with others. Without a common meta-language, we cannot even know what we value and what we don’t. We cannot talk about style versus technique. And we certainly cannot expect anyone to intuit what we mean. I don’t care if you felt limited by Twitter’s 140 character restriction. If you can’t express yourself clearly, you have no business trying to tell others how to express themselves.

You know, I get that language changes. Things are acceptable in writing now that were not acceptable when I was a kid in middle school. You can split infinitives. You can use “alright” instead of “all right,” something I was taught is never correct. You can say “Everyone has their hat” instead of “everyone has his hat.” Lots of these things still drive me batshit and I avoid them like the plague, but that’s just me. As I said earlier, I’m a stickler for grammar and technique. And the waters get muddy where technique and style collide.

But the evolution of language in popular culture is not the point here. Yes, colloquialisms may change, but the professional language of writers talking about writing does not. When I talk with a professor or an editor about “passive voice” it means the grammatical construct whereby the subject of the sentence receives the action. It is distinct and separate from a static stylistic choice and we all know that because the meta-language is consistent.

Our words are our tools. A builder might own both a brick hammer and a framing hammer, but he wouldn’t use the brick hammer to frame a house. We have lots of words in our toolbag, and we need to use the words that say what we mean. If you don’t know them, learn them. Refusing to do so makes all writers look bad.

And if you don’t care about that, think about this: it makes you look like a moron.

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Stop Hating on Adverbs!

Today I’m going to talk about a much-maligned part of speech. Yes, I’m referring to the infamous adverb. If you’re any kind of writer, or even if you follow writing, you’ve without a doubt heard that ADVERBS ARE BAD. I say a little about why I disagree in this blog post. Recently, however, I’ve seen a great many tweets and various other posts from writing coaches encouraging writers to “obliterate adverbs” and similar nonsense, and this really flips my switch. Hence, an entire post devoted to the adverb.

The main thing that irritates me about the “no adverbs” philosophy is that the people who subscribe to it don’t seem to know WHY adverbs are bad. Or at least, if they know they aren’t telling. And I get reactionary and sick at my stomach any time it appears to me that someone is making a sweeping judgment of the worth of anything without giving clear reasons for it. I feel the same way about people dissing parts of speech that I do about racism and sexism and size-ism and any -ism at all. It flips my switch, and I want to come out fighting.

The thing is, a person can overuse adverbs. They can be a sign of hasty and amateurish writing, and going deeper than the adverb can make for better imagery. Compare “He walked quickly down the street” with “His boots beat a rapid tattoo on the asphalt as he wove through the parked cars…” The first doesn’t tell show you much other than the gender of the subject and the fact that he’s moving as a rapid pace. But from the second, you know what kind of shoes he’s wearing (boots), the ground he’s covering (asphalt), that he’s going fast (rapid), that the quality of movement is perhaps martial (beat/tattoo)…all kind of things, all without a single adverb. So, yeah, too much reliance on adverbs can make your writing dull.

On the other hand, telling a writer to eliminate any part of speech altogether is like telling a painter never to use the color red, or telling a musician never to play a B-flat. You’re taking a tool out of the box and throwing it away, not because it’s broken, but because it’s unfashionable. “Oh, manual drills are so last century! No one uses them any more.” But you know, there’s going to come a time when you want that manual drill. When an electric one won’t fit in the space you have, or when you need to drill a starter hole for a screw right away and your electric drill has lost its charge, or just because getting it out of the case is too much trouble and you can keep the manual one in your pocket.

Same with adverbs. Sometimes you need them. Consider:

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out as sharply as those in a Marine’s trousers, and the crisp, double bow topping the package had been aligned with military precision. Clearly someone had taken trouble over this gift.”

Sure, you could eliminate those two adverbs. You could do it in one of two ways. You could decide that neither of them mattered, and replace “as sharply as” with “like,” and drop “clearly” altogether. And you know what? Your sentence would lose imagery. It would not mean the same thing. Or, you could do what far too many writers do, and replace those nasty -ly-words with prepositional phrases.

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out with sharpness like a Marine’s trousers…”

And you know what? I’m not even going on with that, because if you can’t see how awkward it is to go around replacing every single word ending in -ly with a prepositional phrase, I doubt you can understand the point of this blog post. But I can’t tell you the number of dismal fantasy novels I’ve read that had me hugging the toilet from bizarre constructions like “With caution, the hero with swiftness unsheathed his sword and with bravery launched himself at his attacker. With dedication.”

It’s not a question of any part of speech being “bad” or “good”. It’s a question of knowing your craft. And that means being able to make the choice to use an adverb when it suits you or finding a way to replace that adverb you used in the first draft because it was the first thing that popped into your mind with something more picturesque. It also means being able to recognize when a word ending in -ly is an adverb and when it’s not instead of condemning every word with a particular suffix. It means understanding that adverbs also can modify adjectives, and sometimes you want to do that. And it means learning about adverbs that don’t end in -ly, and asking yourself if you really have it in for a part of speech or just an irritating suffix.