Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Some Comments on Someone's Advice

I recently read this article over using the search feature in word processors to find trouble spots in your writing. Some good points, and I especially agree with annihilating qualifiers. Words like "very," "bit," "quite," and "rather" occur far too often in my writing and it drives me crazy when editing.

However, I do take issues with some  of this advice. First, and more trivially, is that in her section on "weasel words" the author uses dialogue to show which of two passages is better than the other. I think it very important for writers to realize the difference between tightening narration and changing dialogue.

Here is the example:

With weasel words: Suddenly, she stood up and said, “Oh well, let’s retire to the drawing room and just stay out of his way.”

Better: She stood and said, “Let’s retire to the drawing room and stay out of his way."
 The problem is that, because this is dialogue, this change isn't a matter of refining the writing - it changes the way the character speaks, and thus how we read her. Dialogue should not be 'tightened' unless it suits the character.

The second point is a battle in which I am ever on the losing side, concerning adverbs. Again, here is the example used in the above article:

With adverb: “I’ll kill him,” she said ferociously. (Really?)

Better: “I’ll kill him,” she said.

To be fair, I don't think we can judge the 'proper' use of an adverb without more context, but taken alone these two are not the same. In the "better" example, she could be saying it calmly, jokingly, in a little-girl sing-song voice, whatever. Details like these could be established before or after the actual dialogue. The fact remains that the adverb changes how we interpret the quote, and thus affects both our knowledge of scene and character.

Adverbs are like any other tool - use them in moderation and they're fine. Use them too often and readers start noticing them. They are make-up: If you use them sparingly they enhance the overall beauty of your work without anyone remembering they were there. Use them heavily and you've only created another flaw.

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