I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid. Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.
Offender #1—Adverb Abuse
One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.
The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.
For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?
Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.
It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).
The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose. If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.
Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.
Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props
You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place. Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.
“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)
I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.
Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.
In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.
Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.
In the world of fiction?
No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.
Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing
Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.
New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.
Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.
Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.
For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.
For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement. See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.
What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
Last Week’s Winner–Nina Badzin
Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.
Until next time…
Wow. This really has me thinking about my revision process now. I just finished a second draft of my manuscript, and I plan on another revision soon. I will definitely have to look out for these. Thanks for the tips. I definitely needed to read them.
Thank you for the fantastic post. I had to laugh at the excamation points. My editor had to add a couple of them because I left them all out. I know I am still learning the craft of writing well, and posts like this one help me to write better for my readers.
I love it when you post pieces like this: I open my windows and hear the groans and yells of ‘I do that!” from across the country.
I used to be an ellipses-aholic, but I’m proud to say that I’ve gotten over that now. It still sneaks into rough drafts sometimes, but that’s the beauty of editing (even if I can’t stand editing :P)
Thanks for such a great reminder on revisions. Too many exclamation points drive me crazy too! And repetition of a word over and over throws the reader out of the story. I am so guilty of that when writing!
Thank you for this post. This one is making me really think about my writing. I don’t use bold, I do use italics frequently in my blog, when I’m quoting something. I’m an exclamation point happy person, i’ll take my meds for that one. The one that concerns me and I would like to ask about is a fiction WIP where I’m using letters as part of the plot. My main character receives these letters throughout the story and I place the content of the letters in italics, would that be wrong use of them as well?
Letters are bad juju most of the time. A sign of weak plotting or what I like to call a Luck Dragon. Get a copy of Story Engineering. If you decide to leave the letters, italics is really hard on the reader. You really don’t need it.
Dracula by Bram Stoker is an example of a rather well known book where letters, notes in diaries and newspaper clippings told the entire story.
I have been told often that I am unique and the exception to most rules, but I’ve never minded italics as a reader. I appreciate knowing the author’s emphasis because it might just be different from mine. In many of the fiction and fantasy novels I’ve read over the years, especially if some telepathy is involved, italics are frequently used.
Lovely post, Kristen. I especially liked the bits about body language.
Dracula was written in 1897, so we have to be careful patterning our writing style off a literary piece that was fashionable over a century ago. Writing evolves just like fashion and filmmaking. If you are wanting to self-publish, you might be able to get away with it. But, traditional publishing will likley be a far harder sell. Modern readers don’t have the patience for the writing styles of the 19th century. Not to say it is impossible. Please don’t get me wrong. But if I wrote like Steinbeck, my stuff would hit the slush pile in a NY minute. People don’t (generally) want to read three pages describing a tree. We did that crap in college and we served our time :D.
My authors @ lamp post pubs, thank you. Or, they will. 🙂 You’re amazing.
I was horrified to find a number of adverbs when editing my manuscript and after reading your post they made me cringe. On the subject of italics I see some authors use italics when writing a characters inner thoughts, is this kind of thing acceptable or should the reader easily pick up a character is thinking without italics? Sorry for the questions but could you clarify the point about ellipses please? Do you mean stuff (like this?) Great post. It reminded me to take more time and not look for that easy short cut.
Since slowly getting started with the editing process for my wip before sending to my first editor, this post is going to be extremely useful and I found it at the perfect time. Thanks for this.
As for me, I put a book down if it preaches at me or if the dialogue and actions are unrealistic to the point that it detracts from the story. For example, I can live with a Southern character who doesn’t have every Southern colloquialism down pat, but for crying out loud, don’t make her talk like a yente from Brooklyn. Thanks for your great post, Kristen.
I think repetitive use of the same showing to show the emotions is also problematic. I spend a great bit of my day (sometimes while writing and often during editing), using this site to mix up my emotional showing.
Hope that helps, too!
aaaahhhhhh…..the italics. i just went through and removed them. thanks for the tip(s) [exclamation point]
I have a question regarding exclamation points and italics. I’m writing Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view. Though 80-90% of the text is my own, there are pieces of dialogue I’ve brought over from the original text.
Style rules during Austen’s time were very different. She used italics frequently, and might have limited herself to three exclamation points every 5000 words. I believe I could remove the italics without anyone noticing, but I can’t change the punctuation, or at least, not much.
I have attempted to blend my style with hers, so those bits of quoted dialogue don’t stand out. That means using an occassional exclamation point myself–not nearly as many as she did, but some. What are your thoughts on this?
Thank you for all the useful tips, Kristen.
No one is sitting there reading your stuff with the original Jane Austen book open. I have reade Austen’s work and remember the story, not her use of punctualtuon. I think too many exclamation points would be very jarring to a modern reader. Feels like we are bing yelled at.
Excellent post, Kristen. I wish you’d been around when I began writing. You’d have saved me lots of annoyances. Kudos to all you do for new (and not so new) writers.
Italics will be the death of me, although, I’m proud to announce I have gotten over my exclamation point addiction. Now, if I can only get over my ellipses addiction…
I’ve come across telling, rather than showing, in two very popular writers’ works in the last week. Drives me crazy, and the book is worse off for it. Thanks for the reminders to everyone!
With regard to telling versus showing, Mary Kole has a great post about not going overboard on physical telling, all the while thinking you are showing http://kidlit.com/2011/06/01/physical-cliches/
Congrats Nina on winning advice from the amazing Kristen!
And Kristen, thank you for posting this. Only wish I’d had this before I sent you my pages to critique. D’oh, indeed! LOL. This is such helpful advice and I really like the last part about choosing words and actions of what your character would do to help establish their personality. That is really helpful to me and where I’ve been stuck in my piece. Thank you thank you thank you.
Excellent post, Kristen, and I especially liked that you explained that a well-placed adverb is a useful tool. So often we are advised to take out every adverb, and your great example really points out when an adverb can, and perhaps should, be used.
Can you please…send an email…to my mother…about her…overuse of ellipses…? And if you could say something…. about her abuse of… exclamation points, too?…I’d really…appreciate it!!!!!
If only my mother read blogs.
Or maybe it’s better this way.
Great job on show don’t tell. We hear these words all the time. When I was a new writer I had no clue what it meant. Few who say these words, can describe the meaning as succinctly as you did here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on two examples of using italics.
1) To show thought. For instance
Joe Smith walked by me, gun in hand. _Where did he get that gun._
I use italics to show a characters thoughts instead of adding “he thought.”
2) To show summary dialogue in a flashback. Rather than typing out a complete dialogue, I might combine the dialogue into a single paragraph and italicize the speaking parts. I do this when the flashback adds context to a current scene but doesn’t doesn’t warrant it’s own scene.
Here is a contrived example.
three days ago, Billy’s men visited. _where’s my money._ They broke furniture… _You have three days._ … (Oops, I used an ellipse there.)
The blunt answer is that internal dialogue and flashbacks are almost always unneccessary. They are coaching the reader. They overexplain, pull the reader out of the story, and in the end don’t add anything.
I mean, anyone who has a gun pulled on them is going to ask, “Where’d he get that gun?” Do you really need to add internal dialogue to state the obvious? I get it. Really. I do. Also, flashbacks ruin forward momentum in the story. It’s like being trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Also, sometimes when you explain, ypou ruin the tension. Stop babying your reader and let them be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable readers can’t stop turning pages. If you relive the reader’s angst then you just gave a nice place for a bookmark.
Interesting post. Show don’t tell is an ongoing process, but I’m getting better. I’ve had fun cutting the adverbs, and now I’ll go back and look for the qualifiers. I know I’ve got some of those.
One thing on the italics as internal thoughts: I’ve had editors tell me that’s fine. So I’m confused …
Most of the time internal thought is redundant. It should be used VERY sparingly. Most of it could just go right into the narrative. For instance:
The robber shoved a gun in Rachel’s face.
Oh, no. I can’t die. Not today. Little Timmy needs me, especially noww that his father is gone.
The robber shoved a gun in Rachel’s face. Rachel felt a sob escape. She couldn’t die. Not today. Her son needed her more than ever.
See how the second selection is much stronger? Yes, if you use internal dialogue, you use italics, but that isn’t the point. Internal dialogue is lazy/weak writing most of the time.
See how you really don’t need the internal dialogue? It shifts the reader out of the forward momentum of the story and most internal dialogue can just be folded into narrative. When I see a crap load of internal dialogue, I know I am dealing with a new writer who hasn’t yet grown strong enough as a writer to fold the thoughts seamlessly into the narrative.
Thanks for the examples. They are definitely more powerful than the internal dialogue.
These are great examples of active writing. Thanks. I use internal dialogue all the time in my rough draft, its like a bookmark for me to go back and improve it. Hope I catch them all in the final draft.
Just checked the exclamation points in the manuscript for my April 2012 release. Yes, I use them, but they’re all in the context of people shouting and my editor didn’t remove them, so I guess they were OK. But I never use dialogue tags with them.
Every once in a while I add a couple exclamation points to my writing so I can go back and murder them later. And right on about the adverbs. I can’t believe how many bigtime writers drop so many of them.
Raising my hand as an ellipses addict. Also that way with dashes. Slightly reformed with adverbs (heh).
For things that irk me in writing, it would be”write by the numbers” lazy things like repeating a description verbatim. I tossed down a book by a popular author a little bit ago who did this four times in less than two short chapters.
In my current WIP my characters are telepathic, in those conversations I write in italics. I can’t really think of any other way to show dialogue. I need to make a cheat sheet with all these little reminders.
As a reader, I don’t have a problem with the use of italics when used for the thoughts of a character. But it is to be used sparingly because it is annoying when done over and over. Also, you must ask yourself if having a charachters thought is going to cause a conflict with the POV of your writing, it might just be a slippery slope into a different POV.
Other than my blog, I am not a writer. In fact I began writing my blog to overcome my fear of writing. As much as putting words on paper terrifies me, I could never even begin to think of writing fiction – although occasionally I have some cute ideas for children’s books (I’m a Kindergarten teacher).
Anyway, I read your post today and loved it as a reader. I just finished a book that drove me crazy because the author was constantly telling me how a character felt even after she showed it. Every time that happened I was pulled out of the story and annoyed. When I truly enjoy a book it is because I was lost in the story and never distracted or bored. Thanks! (is that an OK exclamation point?)
My on-going gripe is too much detail. Jonathan Kellerman is one example (and I know, he’s a successful writer), but we get every street name and freeway name as he drives through town. I don’t care. That slows down the story to a crawl. And oh yes, there’s traffic on the freeway. Duh!!
Excellent advice. As a new writer, I certainly found myself guilty of almost all these offences.
Anyone else besides me guilty of these offences?!!!…:)
Jody, most of us have been guilty. It’s called “learning.” I remember ten years ago when I wrote my first novel. Oy vay! I deliberately went through and added adverbs to every verb I could find. I thought that made it better *slaps forehead*. The thing is, most of us learn to write in high school or college english. Those classes are designed to teach us how to use the tools of the language correctly (i.e. how to correctly place an adverb). Yhey aren’t classes to train us for publication in commercial fiction. Our teacher didn’t care if we used 20 metaphors, because her goal was to teach us to use a metaphor correctly…NOT to prep us for submission to Random House.
So no worries. We all do it.
Definitely guilty on all four counts.
I’m guilty, Jody! But I’m getting better. I look at my early writing and cringe.
I’m addicted to the em dash–and the semicolon; we sit down and duke it out every time I edit.
Thanks for this post. I’m editing a WIP all this week so these are good reminders.
Sounds like many of us have the same peeves. I go absolutely nuts when I see the same word or phrase repeated throughout a novel. When editing my own WIP I catch those and revise. When I see it in a published work I think “where was the editor?”
And the dash becomes an ellipse for many – myself included (see I did it just then)(now I wanted to add an exclamation mark). I’m seeing this in a lot of self-pubbed YA (which I read quite a bit of) and reading it in other’s work has made me see how crazy it makes the reader, especially if the writer is doing it consistently for hundreds of pages. Lets make a pact to end the consistent use of the dash and ellipses in our fiction.
Will definitely add these to my ever growing “no-no” list. Thanks!
This post sounds as if you went through all my early writing I worked so hard on years ago. More things to laugh about while I break bad habits. Thanks Kristen.
Thank You!! I’m working on these things right now!! Your post made things simple and clear!!
Great article. I continue to be guilty of these at one time or another. And I continue to root them out during edits.
The “show don’t tell” rule is something that I only recently got, which is sad because it seems so easy in theory. It’s weird to write a scene using what feels like fine narration, and then rewrite the same scene using action. The first feels okay, and I certainly don’t throw the book down when I read it in a professional, but the latter feels SO much better.
Great post! (<—- *gasp*! Saboteur!)
This is great! I’m one of those beginners, so I’ve learned something today!
Excellent advice as always, Kristen. Thanks for the excellent reminders.
What once made me put down a book was the writer’s overuse of an expression the MC continuously used in dialogue and then to make it worse, other characters also used the same expression every few pages. That word was “frexing” which I am assuming was his substitute word for a more foul curse word. Either way, it was so annyoing that I couldn’t stand to read another page.
Ouch and ouch. Straight from here, Im headed to my manuscript to get rid of adverbs. Exclamation marks. Ellipses. “but Kristen, I…LOVE…my…ellipses! Dont make me chase them away! Pleeeeease…” she pleaded pleadingly…
Thank you for the kick in the butt I needed regarding those writing sins. When you put it that way – they all totally make sense and I was cringing inside as I thought about how many of them I probably have in my book.
These are problems that are common to all new writers, fiction and nonfiction alike. 😉
My biggest pet peeve is a book that starts with a lengthy description of the scene. A little bit of it is fine. There is often a lot of valuable symbolism provided in those descriptions. But if you take two pages to tell me exactly how tall, wide and colorful a tree is, you’re going to put me to sleep. I love an author who briefly gives a few scenic details here and there, scattered as needed in the action.
Amen, amen, amen on these Kristen! Especially the qualifiers. I catch these ALL the time when I edit.
I write things like…
He nodded his head. (really? as opposed to what? Nodding his foot?)
He shrugged his shoulders (I tried shrugging my knees….it doesn’t work)
His eyes widened in surprise. (no kidding)
Great reminders here, woman. 🙂
I’ve taught college writing on and off for years, and notice now that I’m blogging how easy it is to make the same mistakes I warn my students against. I struggle with the showing/telling issue when I blog.
Thanks for these reminders.
You drove home a huge point for- be careful of lazy writing. My inexperience shows up when I litter my manuscript these errors.
A strong story will stand with solid foundation. I fall into the trap of too many flowery words, instead to tight writing. A lot of telling happens in this case.
Amen on all you’ve said, Kristen. Might have mentioned dragging long words from the thesaurus to impress the reader with the author’s vocabulary. Ugh. (Ooh. Started to put an exclamation point after the “Ugh.”)
Ahem…I’m addicted to ellipses in my blog posts. 😀 I like ’em the way I like sentence fragments. I can see where they’d be out of place in a novel though. The ellipses. Not the sentence fragments. I like those especially for my flash fiction.
I’ve a few that haven’t been talked about much.
Passive voice – It disrupts the flow, at least for me. I know everyone says not to use it, but people still do.
Parentheses in fiction – Parentheses are fine in emails, blog posts and so on. In fiction, well, I ain’t likin’ them. They make me stumble.
Big fancy words – I’m not stupid and my vocabulary is just fine, but when someone overuses big fancy words, it just comes across as pretentious. They’re puttin’ on airs. They can really disrupt the flow if they’re overused.
You get a big plus if you use the word ‘shenanigans.’ And ‘oubliette.’ Those rarely used words are cool and need to come back into common use.
Good post. The whole “show don’t tell” rule is always an interesting one.
What’s funny is that if you read certain books from only 40-50 years ago, you’ll find some significant authors did use some “telling” narration when maybe they should have used showing instead. It’s kind of like old movie trailers, too…instead of using dialogue from the movie/showing action scenes, they often used a narrative voiceover instead.
Good tips, Kristen. My writing teachers had fits about exclamation points. I never use them. But then I got a little happy with dashes and my copy editor cleared that up. 🙂
Your tips about making lists for body language, etc, are great. Thanks.
Great advice Kristen. Key writing elements to keep in mind. I tend to use exclamation points more than I need to. Will have to keep an eye out for those when editing my WIP which will be very soon. A book or list on body language would come in very handy. No need to put my name in the hat as I already have your book!
I think there are two instances where using italics and upper case are okay in fiction. The first is using italics in a third person narattive to denote when the character is having a thought. instead of – Yuk, what a pig, Jane thought. You’d just have, ‘Yuk what a pig’ writen in italics.
The second is to use uppercase to denote a character that has an very loud voice. Julie Kagawa used this in the Iron Fey series with the character Iron horse. You never forgot how big and loud he was. It saved her having to remind us all the time by saying ‘Ironhorse shouted,’ or similar.
A qualification on my comment about italics for thoughts above. I’m not talking about it as a general way of handling inner dialogue, (that would be tedious) rather as a method used to add punch and portray an inner reaction in a short number of words, without slowing the action down. Certainly never more than one sentance at a time. I think it works well in YA fiction becaue it suits the clipped language style of teens.
If you look at the post, I never said we could never use italics. I said to use it sparingly and test the scene first and see if there was a way to get around it. I get a lot of writing samples and half the page is internal thought. It is distracting. It switches the reader out of third limited POV into first person progressive. It is jarring and most of the time unnecessary. Most of the time if the internal thought is folded into the narrative it is actually much stronger.
We can use italics and ellipses, but new writers fall in love with them. I know. I have my first novel sitting in a box for any
suckerwriter brave enough to look, LOL. It is positively infested with exclamation points, ellipses and italics.
What happens is we use these techniques as props instead of developing our writing muscles. And often what I see is that the prose is very strong…it is just infested with a bunch of props that treat me (the reader) like I am too dumb to understand. Oh, I need ellipses because without them I couldn’t possiby grasp this scene is supposed to be dramatic. well, if that is the case, then the scene needs rewriting. Sorry.
I just recommend looking at all the best-sellers. Do they use these tools? Probably. Do they have them on every single page? No.
Kristen, I love to read your blog – most of the time. This time, I read, made a comment somewhere up there… But, I find that the more I think about some of the things you said, the more I feel insulted, I really do. But not by italics or bold or …
I’ve been writing for years though all I have ever published is one poem in an anthology. Still, I feel for new writers. I put myself in their place, well aware of how I wrote 30 years ago. In that place, I’ve been called an amateurish, lazy weakling all at once. I feel as though you’ve tried to cover up those insults by saying new writers are only amateurish, lazy and guilty of weak writing because they are inexperienced and still learning.
Can you feel my italics?
Here is an irony: as children we say “tell me a story” rather than “show me a story.” I wonder why that is? Since telling is so very bad. One would think that if telling was so very weak and lazy, it wouldn’t have the strength to be bad, bad, bad!
I’m not angry. I’m not even hurt. It is important to say so. Yet, I think perhaps that people who offer wonderful advice, as you so often do, must be careful of telling anyone that their writing may be weak or lazy based on a few adverbs or ellipses. A new writer with the excitement of a fresh convert, pours his or her heart and soul into the story they are telling. Blood, sweat and tears are all shed in the struggle to write a book, as you assuredly know. It seems to me that saying, as you did, Kristen, that a writer is inexperienced is sufficient to the point. Yes. I much prefer “inexperienced” to lazy and “uniformed” to weak.
Your post was very good, even though I felt vaguely insulted. I “got it” early on. Get it?
Well, sometimes truth stings. Candy-coating doesn’t make us grow. I had been writing four years when I went to a critique group that slaughtered all my pretty adverbs and ellipses. Did I have talent? Sure. Had I had proper instruction? No. I was like a self-taught singer who had habits that would burn out my voice or a dancer with techniques that, while pretty, could cause injury or keep me from the big stages in NY.
Telling is lazy. Sorry. It isn’t storytelling. Filling in the blanks for the reader takes less creativity then painting a vivid picture.
Joe was an angry drunk.
Joe walked in the room, and all of us kids froze. We didn’t dare let out a breath. Children were supposed to be asleep. Our giggles had stirred Joe from his bourbon-induced slumber on the couch. He locked on me with his red-eyed stare, and I braced for the blow I knew was coming. I just hoped this time he didn’t hit me in the face.
See how one fills in the blanks, and the other creates tension?
My goal with these posts is to offer instruction for commercial fiction. I have made all the mistakes, and I remember being embarassed, angry, and indignant. But once I could get past that, I realized these techniques made my writing stronger. I didn’t need the excalmation points, because the prose was so strong the reader would be shouting in her head. I didn’t need ellipses because my prose was strong enough to be dramatic on its own, without the use of props. I was treating the reader as if she was tooo dumb to “get” what I was saying.
I receive a lot of writing samples off this contest and I can tell you that there are new writers who have strong writing, but they feel the need to coach the reader and it is distracting and insulting to the reader. I personally get annoyed when writers tell me their character smiled happily, yelled loudly or ran quickly. It is redundant and treats me like I am so dense I didn’t “get” the verb so they had to modify it. Often, though, their prose is already strong enough without the gimmick. Writers need to know this, because then their work looks professional. An agent won’t look at page one and see a crap load of unnecessary exclamation points and ellipses….the agent will see strong writing.
It is better to get correction now, then suffer rejection after rejection and not know why. Or worse, to self-publish and get slaughtered in an on-line review. And, I am sorry of people get their feelings hurt. I personally, would want to know if I was walking around with my literary skirt tucked in my literary underwear :D.
I appreciate the advice. Okay, I’ve heard some before, but that doesn’t’ mean I don’t need reminding. And I don’t think calling something “lazy writing” means that the author is lazy. The writing itself needs improvement. And isn’t that why we’re all looking at blogs and taking classes in the first place?
Lazy writing is lazy writing, not lazy authors. A lazy author is one who doesn’t apply what she’s learned, not someone who is ignorant. We’re all ignorant of something. Thanks again for an informative blog and I love We Are Not Alone too!
We all get lazy. It isn’t an insult. It is a reality. Most novels span 60,000 to 100,000 words. We get tired and our brain takes shortcuts. This is why we have to be aware of these crutches. When we are on deadline or trying to make a word goal, our nature will often take the path of least resistance. And that is fine….IF we can go back and spot the shortcuts and fix them. I have many times that I go back through my writing (even after ten years) and spot where I took the easy way and it affected the writing.
Most of us cannot give 110% every day on every page. If we could, there would be no need for revision. It would be perfect.
I am not writing this list to make people feel badly. I am writing it to help them clean up the writing and make it stronger. To take away the props that are weakening already strong writing. I have edited literally thousands of writers and have seen these mistakes so often that they need to be addressed. Heck, I had them in my own writing. I STILL do…and I have to go back and rewrite.
But a lot of these literary props are like training wheels. Eventually we need to get strong enough to not use them. If we are sixteen years old riding a bike with training wheels it looks weird. If we have been writing for ten years and insist on using italics every other word so the text will be dramatic, it shows we aren’t growing. There should come a time that we should be able to write a dramatic scene without props.
My friend Kristen can be abrupt, but she’s also usually right. I used to be insulted when my work or my habits were corrected, but I decided I had to choose between feeling insulted and learning. I chose to learn instead. We cannot wear our feelings on our sleeves if we expect to improve in our writing.
I completely agree. Please bring on the advice, or how can I get better? Its one of the reasons I have two CP’s. They spot different things and both of them spot things I’ve missed. Not sure my post actually conveyed my feelings of thanks for the advice, but I’ll say it again. Thanks for the advice!
I used to overuse italics, especially in the case of writing out a character’s thoughts. I think I’m over that now.
Unfortunately, now I’m addicted to ellipses…
Thanks for these tips and I hope they will help a lot in further writing.
Awesome post! I have been slowly weeding out the adverbs in my WIPs, but still guilty of abuse and ellipses?!?!?! Really?? Oh and add exclamation points…loooove the exclamation points. Hmm…this response is not going well. I think I’m going to print this post and have it handy when in Editing Mode. 😉
Late in commenting, but I’m glad I read this post.
I’ve been writing seriously now for about 6 years. I’ve learned a crap load in that time, but I’m not perfect by any standard. I’m good about leaving out exclamation marks in my manuscripts, but REALLY bad using them in blog posts and emails:} I type those puppy’s in like my lifew depended on them being there.
I also just realized that I’m probably using way too many itallic words…woopsy…I will be scouring my WIP for those little buggers the minute I’m done here.
Other than those I think I’m doing a decent job omitting the other pet peves you mentioned.
I’m judging a contest right now though, and it appears many of my entrants need to read this post. I plan on directing them to you in the section that allows me that liberty.
I can’t think of a book off the top of my head that made we want to hurl it through a window, but I watched a movie the other night, Sucker Punch, with my daughter…um, and that one made me want to throw a brick at the screen. How does a movie with so many huge holes in it get made? I had so many unanswered questions at the end of the flick that I was pulling my hair out. Grrrrrrr!!! (see, too many exclamation points:)
I think that movies, and books alike should tie things up for the reader/watcher. I want every little plot point adressed, otherwise, why the heck is it in the scene or chapter to begin with?
That’s my pet peeve…answer questions and don’t piss off your reader:)
Thanks so much for this post. It was an eye opener!!!!!! LOL
Have a great day:)
Thanks for the refresher mini-course, Kristen.
I can’t be reminded of these things too many times…thanks, Kristen!
Yes, great reminder. These are things I’m continually trying to work on and remember. One thing that I’m not sure anyone else has mentioned are dialogue tags. (haven’t read comments yet). But you covered all the really obnoxious stuff.
I used to use the … a lot. Then I had a beta reader who would freak out at the use of them and scream about how I should have used the EM dash. O_O Suffice it to say, I rarely use the … any more and now use the EM dash. Though I don’t have that beta anymore (they disappeared after two chapters) I think they taught me a lot more about grammar than I realized. XD
WOO-HOO!!!!! Oh first, GREAT post. Really! But second, woo-hoo! So fun! Can I send you a short story instead though? The novel is WAY too rough for anyone to see, but I have two stories that are in final stages I’d love a fresh pair of eyes to glance at. (I’d pick one of them) Let me know! This is so great!
Thank you for mentioning italics. It’s what killed Dan Brown for me. I still love John Irving’s writing, but I want to say: Trust your reader! Limit your italics!
Seriously, is it possible to misuse punctuation?
I always spot sentences like “X was angry…”. I always ask my clients, “How angry?” and draw a graph that measures degrees of anger. It ranges from 0 (mildly miffed) to 10 (furious and homicidal)
I used to love to read a certain prolific author until I began studying the craft of writing. I soon realized his protagonist said things “wryly” about a hundred times per book. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t concentrate on the story, I was too busy waiting for the next “wryly” to pop up.
Thanks for this post, it’s a great reminder to look at what I’m writing. I am a serious abuser of the comma and the word “just.”
Great advice. I read a book a few months ago where the writer used at least one exclamation mark on every single page. On one page I counted ten. I was too distracted counting the exclamation marks to get into the story.
Show, don’t tell is my writing mantra.
I have a habit of throwing in adverbs. Instead of trying not to write them I just put them in and regularly go through and delete the lot!
I laughed out loud and the thought of the book shouting at you like Billy Mays. Thanks for posting this. Great tips we all need to be reminded of, especially as we hone the craft.
Thanks so much for the great tips! I’m starting revisions on my first novel and it’s very helpful to have specific issues to look out for.
I’m at the point where I cringe whenever I write an adverb. But I’m still having trouble paring them down. Baby steps, I suppose 🙂
All so true! And I’m guilty along with every one else- but that’s what first drafts are for right? I do have a question- what about using italics for something that is being read in the story. A key ‘character’ in my book is mom’s journal. I’ve chosen to use italics to separate it just a bit more and so each time she thinks about advice her mom left her I don’t have to introduce the journal. Is this Okay, lazy, or not enough info to make a choice? LOL!
Billy Mays? Seriously? The guy sold a lot of products.
LOL – with 92 comments, what is there left to add? Awesome post Kristen, as always.
I just found your blog. Before I did, I was reminded of a book I read years ago that I threw across the room and could not finish. I googled “when writers insult the reader’s intelligence by overexplaining” and found you! I wondered if others had the same reaction or it was just me. I felt the author was over explaining and telling instead of showing. I looked for reviews and found most reviewers gushing over his (first and looks like only) novel Shooting an Albatross. I met the author at a farmer’s market in Oregon where he was hawking his book. I decided to take a chance on him and bought his book. A few chapters in, I had to force myself to keep reading until I couldn’t take any more. I was wondering if you had ever heard of this self-published book by Steven R. Lundin and what your opinion of his writing is. Has anyone else reading this blog read the book? Am I wrong? I wish I had the book with me to quote some passages but I “lost” it in the move. Thank you for listening and I look forward to any feedback 🙂
I still feel that you are coaching your reader too much. I read your selections and I think the italics weakens your writing. Give us a little credit. We actually do know what words need to be stressed…even without the brain-holding.
This is exactly what I was talking about. The prose alone is already strong. You really don’t have to baby us.
I read that post too, and funnily enough before I read it I would have agreed with some of the points. I too use italics in that way at times (to provide emphasis on certain words), but the examples used in that post only proved what you were saying about them being unnecessary. It showed that the emphasis was obvious without the italics. I could hear myself emphasising ‘spoon’ without the italics being there. It really proved your point.