Writing Wednesday: Stylistic Advice and Why We Loathe It

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Writing Wednesday: Stylistic Advice And Why We Loathe It

There are three pieces of ‘writing advice’ I see mouthed by pretty much every Internet denizen who has ever put pen to notepad. These are:

1) Never use passive voice.
2) Adverbs are the sweet, sweet children of Satan, and you should never use them.
3) Never use any speech tag aside from ‘said’. Or, conversely: use ANY speech tag that ISN’T said.

I take exception to all three of these. There’s a place for passive voice, a place for adverbs, places where ‘said’ is/isn’t appropriate. Can you guess why I’m bringing this up?

Yes, it’s because I’m going to offer you writing advice. It is, indeed, Writing Wednesday. And my writing advice takes the form of this simple, easy to follow rule:

1) NEVER SAY NEVER.

Writing is a creative discipline, just like painting or acting. And when I start to see all these ‘nevers’ flowing through my news feed, I get a little antsy. These parts of speech exist because, at some point in history, somebody needed them. Who’re you to deny thousands of years of written tradition?

Don’t get me wrong, you should probably play it pretty light with adverbs and passive voice. An entire story written in passive voice would be pretty dull, and a story jam-packed with adverbs would have all the emotional immediacy of a jellyfish trapped in talcum powder. Say ‘said’ too much and people are going to start shouting, whispering and screaming that you should go fuck yourself, no, really. On the other hand, ignore ‘said’ for declared, stated and declaimed, and people will be so busy looking up your speech tags in a dictionary that they’ll ignore what your characters actually say.

But these things have their place. Let’s start with numero uno:

1) Never use passive voice.

I think of three famous words in politics, as most people do when they hear the phrase ‘passive voice’: mistakes were made. Oh, were they? People laugh at this line, and it’s for a reason. Regardless of what you think about which group of assholes said it most recently and whether or not there were mistakes, what a perfect, weaselly, politically snivelling way to say it. A king who says ‘mistakes were made’ is, with indirect perfection, owning up to making them. Passive voice is a good indicator of shovelled blame, guilty conscience.

It’s also (and this blogger, thewordweasel , explains this very well) a good tool to have on hand when the thing that’s actually happening is more important than the subject of your sentence. For instance, if you write:

The dogs were let out at dawn.

I better, at no point in this story, wind up asking the ancient question: ‘who let the dogs out?’ I might use such a line to end a chapter, or in this sort of situation:

Lord Barton was displeased. He was, in fact, more than merely displeased–he was furious. Each apple that vanished from the garden, each fruit plucked, each seed stolen, was another wound in his side, another howling mark against a world that, regardless of his attempts to restore order, kept on being disorderly.

Lord Barton was done with such things. He was done with disorder, done with thieves.

The dogs were let out at dawn.

In a situation like this, passive voice adds a note of foreboding as well (one I find most useful as an endnote). You know damn well who released the dogs. But there’s a sense of released responsibility, even finality, in passive voice–of throwing your hands up and saying ‘fuck it, what happens, happens’–that comes in handy when something game-changing has been done, or some weird shit has been perpetrated.

So no, you probably shouldn’t use it all the time. Most of your sentences should have a clear and relatable subject. But it’s a good occasional tension reliever, and it’s good for an ending.

Which brings us to:

2) Adverbs are the sweet, sweet children of Satan, and you should never use them.

Excuse me, what? That’s an entire part of speech you just dissed there. While I applaud the rich tradition of minimalism that flows through our writing community, you just killed roughly 1/8th of the English language.

I blame Stephen King for this one, I really do. His famous line, ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, has to be one of the oft-quoted leviathans of the writing community by now. And Stephen King can write well. Most of the time. Better than me, but hell, I calls ’em as I sees ’em.

You can’t dispose of an entire part of speech just because Stephen King tells you to. What if he’d said the road to hell was paved with verbs? How would you handle things then? Very confusingly. Very, VERY confusingly. And if it were paved with adjectives, there goes your character’s wavy auburn hair and striking emerald eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, adjectives AND adverbs alike are fluffy things. In fact, think of your writing as a bed, and the adjectives/adverbs in it as stuffed animals. One or two might be cute, or simply important (where else would Morky the stuffed horse and Pushy the penguin wind up, after childhood? Are you going to spend four hundred bucks and shadowbox them, along with your fucking Pulitzer?). But too many stuffed animals and your bedroom winds up looking like a thirties porn boudoir, or your grandmother’s guest room. And, unless this is what you’re going for, that’s probably a big red NO.

When you pad your story with these not-strictly-necessary parts of speech, your reader is taken away from the emotional heart of your story. ‘She was sad’ reads stronger than ‘she was very sad’, ‘she was extremely sad’, or, for a little interest, ‘she was platonically sad’.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, the way in which your character does something is more important than the fact of it being done.

For instance, say your teenaged main character is sweeping the floor. Unless this is a minor household goddess bearing the Broom of Thor, I thoroughly expect this sweeping to be a setpiece for bigger and better things. Is your character thinking about something? Daydreaming? Sousing out revenge schemes in full mindblown technicolor?

An adverb can suggest what’s going on in there with a single word, and without a lot of fuss. Observe:

Bitterly, she swept the floor.

This tells you something. It does it quickly and painlessly. I prefer it, infinitely, to:

Her mind full of revenge and angry murmurings, she swept the floor.

It’s just less awkward.
Adverbs are also useful in humorous context. For instance:

Go fuck yourself,” she said cheerily.

Is a very different animal from the mere:

“Go fuck yourself,” she said.

I don’t encourage adverbs in speech tags often. Adverbs are not your friends, and you shouldn’t use ‘said’ plus an adverb when a single strong verb will suffice. But every once in a while, again, you need to express how something is being said, and you need to do it quick and dirty.

And sometimes those single strong verbs aren’t quite right. Which one would you use for ‘said cheerily’? ‘Trilled’, maybe? ‘Chirped’? They’re close in meaning, but they aren’t quite the same. Also, sorry, but they’re awkward. Do you lose some immediacy with ‘said cheerily’? Yes. But you also aren’t left wondering whether or not this character has suddenly sprouted feathers.

Speaking of speech tags, I believe we’re into:

3) Never use any speech tag aside from ‘said’. Or, conversely: use ANY speech tag that ISN’T said.

I love this one. I’ve seen it, many times, both ways. And its continued existence, in both forms, just reinforces my belief that you should NEVER SAY NEVER.

I’ll tell you, I believe mightily in ‘said’. It gets the job done. It does it unobtrusively. When what your character is saying is more important than HOW it’s being said, ‘said’ is your righthand man. This having been written:

Sometimes, people shout. Sometimes they screech. Sometimes they hiss. Sometimes they whisper. Sometimes, you pretentious ass, they even declaim or declare.

Best advice I can give you here: when you imagine your character saying this thing, listen to them in that snuggly skull of yours. Do you hear them shouting? Screeching? Declaiming? No? Then use said. Or, even better, see if you can get away without a speech tag. If you’ve got two people talking to one another, you often can.

Convincing dialogue does vary speech tags, but it also varies speech tag placement. Even the basic switcheroo– ‘said Wanda’ as opposed to ‘Wanda said’– can vary the cadence of your writing enough to keep the spice alive. And cadence, I feel, is an oft-ignored art in prose. Your writing should sound good when you read it aloud. Not fancy-pantsy purple-mountain’s-majesty sort of good. It should sound natural. Short sentences should be interspersed with long, fancy words with simple. Said should be interspersed (about seventy-thirty, we’ll say) with whispered, countered, swore.

Language is a hodgepodge, and we’ll talk about art of rhythm in another post. But there IS one. Trust me.

But remember, most of all–you shouldn’t be getting too hung up on speech tags. They’re a purely utilitarian thing, with a purely utilitarian purpose. Your speech tags exist to make it clear who is speaking. If they do this without being clunky or inane, they’re doing a good job. Now focus on your dialogue.

To sum it up: you’re writing the story. You make the rules. Big bolshy DO NOTS like the three I’ve mentioned are, to me, limiting things in a discipline that doesn’t need any more limitation. Will you fuck up occasionally? Sure. Everybody does. But that’s why you edit. That’s why somebody else, preferably a professional, helps you edit.

And you know what? Even on draft fifty, even after a professional editor comes in with a flamethrower and blasts your writing into the stratospheric realm of As Good As It Gets, you’re still going to make mistakes.

And that’s just how it is. No one’s going to put down your book because you used ‘exponentially’ awkwardly. If they do, they’re probably not the person you want reading your story anyway.

Write with heart, and conscience, and above all with love. If you’ve done these three things–if your story is the one you want to tell, the way you want to tell it–people will forgive you the rest. And if they don’t: fuck ’em. You did your part. Not everybody liked Mozart, either.

There, I just made myself tear up. And I just realized, this post is like an f-bomb Blitzkrieg. Sorry about that. I guess.

I’d ask you what you think, but I trust you to tell me anyway.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Stylistic Advice and Why We Loathe It

  1. I stopped reading after FBOMB 3. Unprofessional.

    Actually, I’ve decided you’re very intelligent. And I agree with your statements. I try to remove passive word use, but it has its place. I try to keep things lightly fluffed, but you know how porn goes.

    And those statements are for revision anyway! Who in their right minds writes while tiptoeing through the tulips!? Blah. I also use exclaquestions at the end of some sentences, and apparently that’s bad. ALSO! People say not to use exclamation marks ever! I mean, what the heck is happening to our writing? Blah. Gotta go let the dogs out. /portents

    I like your vocabulary. It’s extensive. Also, bolshy. New one for me. Love it.

    Also, if you need someone to proof/edit/critique your stuff, I’d be happy to. I know how difficult it can be to get someone willing to read and critique, but I do it professionally. Did it professionally. Not anymore. Not right now. I’m also a lot better than my editor at catching my own mistakes while I’m running through this menagerie, so either my editor is total crap/lazy with my work, or I’m simply magnificent. I’m going with the former. If I were the latter, I’d be too full of myself.

    Not everybody loved Mozart. Hahaha True. But the people who didn’t like Mozart probably preferred the lute. Hah. I have no idea what I’m saying.

    1. Huh. So you made it through the first forty words or so.

      I’m not intelligent so much as obstinately stupid. Some people are stupid and change their minds when they find something better to believe in. I call these quitters. I’m into stupid for the long haul. 😛

      About that word, ‘bolshy’. It might be new to you because, erm. Well, this is difficult to admit in a public forum, but some of us MIGHT have read A Clockwork Orange a little too young. Certain semi-Slavic salvos (how’s THAT for alliteration?) may have worked their way into my vocabulary without my realizing that they are not, in fact, actual words. Imagine my surprise when I found out that nobody else eats lomticks of toast in the morning. Imagine my high school English teacher’s face as she underlined ‘lomticks’, repeatedly, in red marker

      And I appreciate your offer. You probably shouldn’t have offered it, because I might actually take you up on it. I would, of course, be happy to do the same for you–I’ve done copyedit stuff for a few friends over the years, but I can’t promise much in the way of accuracy. Like I told you, ‘shitting in the woods’ only stopped after like ten people.

      1. Aw. And here I went with the ‘bating thought. Oi. You know where my mind is, I guess. Not really. Shitting is much more understandable.

        You had ten people to send your work to? Hahah. I have two. And one got back with me after a year and a half.

        They aren’t words until you use them as words, and then they are words. Given my penchant to propagate words together (my brother calls it ‘poetic license’ with a sneer), I think the world needs more creative writers like that. IMHO.

        I also appreciate your humility. Very nice. Very nice.

        I’m serious with it, but I’m also really new to all this stuff. I’ve written most of my life. I haven’t published ever. Anything. Ever. It’s a little (lot) intimidating.

      2. Eleven, I think, counting Mom. And out of those eleven, three got back to me. I guess it’s a lot to ask, especially if your friends aren’t necessarily readers. Sure doesn’t help your self esteem, though. (I’m still hoping Mom has a place for my novel on her fridge.)

        My best readers are my mom and my boyfriend. I’m not ashamed. My mom reads a lot of the same stuff I read, and I trust her opinion (especially when it’s ‘awww, honey, this is SO GOOD!’). My boyfriend lets me read things out loud to him. Which has, actually, been a lot more useful than anything else–when you’ve got a typo in there and you’re reading aloud, oh buddy, YOU CATCH IT. If it sounds awkward–you guessed it, you catch it. He’s good with plot holes, too. A little too good. Like, hurts my pride good.

        Don’t get it twisted, though, my publishing credits extend to a few magazine articles and one poem in my college lit magazine. I think. It was about the Roman Empire, it was a sonnet, and it blew pretty hard. This is my first time ever trying to publish a novel, and I am totally not expecting great things to happen. What I’m expecting is more along the lines of ‘just enough money back to cover my expenses and a glowing sense of accomplishment’. Or, more likely still: “soul-crushing understanding that I am not a special snowflake, and the world doesn’t give two shits in a bucket of epsom salts if I like to write high fantasy with the word fuck in it’.

        Don’t worry ’bout the ‘bating. That’s more a touchscreen/autocorrect error for me. Shitting is hard key/mind slippage at its finest.

  2. I love this post. I wrote a similar post a while back titled the worst writing advice I’ve received, which included some of the other sacred cows such as ‘write what you know’.
    The problem with blanket dos and don’ts in writing is that our language is too subtle to be covered by simple rules. The principle of ‘think carefully before you use …” is correct, but over time it gets reduced to ‘you’ll burn in hell if you use …”. This is, frankly, bullshit, so well done on calling it out.

    1. Couldn’t agree more! While a lot those sacred cows often contain truth (my feelings on ‘write what you know’ and the eighty billion ways to interpret it could, actually, outword a small paranormal romance series), the REASON they do gets ignored for the ease of the hard n’ fast stampede. It’s a good idea in most aspects of life to examine a piece of advice and figure out if it makes sense for you before you employ it: why this has gotten more and more ignored in the arts is beyond me.

      Thanks for stopping by, and glad you enjoyed.

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