We all know the well-worn phrase “show, don’t tell” as it relates to writing. It means many things. All taken together, I believe it urges us as writers to use creativity to paint pictures, describe a setting or character or move along a story plot, rather than just stringing together words like paste jewels onto a cheap chain.
I’m learning bonsai tree pruning, and it reminds me so much of the editing process. You do a snip here and there, stand back, look at the whole tree. Then you see another place that needs snipping, and another. At a certain point, you have a perfect balance between the architecture of the tree trunk and limbs and the flow of the branches and leaves. That’s what you’re looking for in your writing.
Bonsai pruning is like editing out superfluous words. Create spare beauty.
One of the ways we cheat as writers is to add words to nouns and verbs to be descriptive. When we’re novices, we think that the more flowery we make our writing, the better it is. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Today we chat about the adverb. You know, those pesky cousins of adjectives. To refresh, adjectives modify nouns (“the pretty girl”); adverbs modify verbs (“he laughed harshly”). I used to remember which was which this way: “ad(d) to a verb.” (Thus, making adjective the other one.)
As William Zinsser says in his classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, most adverbs are unnecessary. Why? Mostly because they annoy the reader, and they can be crutches for us when we’re feeling uninspired, lazy, tired, or unfocused as writers. (My rule is that if I’m feeling any of those, I put down the pen, or walk away from the computer. A walk for fresh air, food, rest or some other nourishment is what I need before I can concentrate on the task of crafting language.)
Here are a few tips to pruning your weedy word garden of prickly adverbs, and some particular thoughts on creating great dialogue.
1. Give them some credit.
Your readers enjoy reading partly because it gives their minds a workout. Don’t do all the work for them. Leave something to the imagination. Trust that they will read the words and sense the tone on their own. Rather than making the picture clearer (a professional’s intention with all writing choices) it’s likely to make it muddier. As Zinsser says so eloquently: Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.
2. Choose active, colorful verbs.
Zinsser says verbs are the most important of all our tools. Probably no other language, he says, has such a “vast supply of verbs so bright with color.” Don’t choose verbs that merely work; select ones that vibrate with action. All the onomatopoeia words (the ones that sound like what they mean) are great examples of these, such as dazzle, twirl, scatter, poke, glitter, vex.
3. Less is more.
It may require an unfamiliar self-discipline to not want to over-explain (in life as well as writing), but it’s a habit that professional writers have over amateur ones. By use of redundant or otherwise meaningless adverbs, we obfuscate the clearest intent of our writing, and we underestimate the intelligence and imagination of our readers.
4. What she said.
The more journalistic approach (even if it is more repetitive) is to use simple verbs in dialogue to identify who is being quoted, such as said, thought or maybe noted. I wouldn’t get too caught up in trying to create variety with words like explained, observed or pondered. When you do, it clutters up your writing. The focus is meant to be on what the person thought or said, not the mechanics of explaining that it was a thought or comment.
5. No stone unturned.
This is why editing and revision is so critical to the best writing. You can indulge in all kinds of superfluity with your first draft; just make sure you go back through, more than once and at different sittings, to extract all those unnecessary words later. Then give it to your editor and let her get rid of that with which you just couldn’t part.
It was one of the first things we learned in journalism school, and it seems counter-intuitive, but if you read great writing, you’ll note that the best dialogue is presented with very spare mechanics—just enough to ensure the reader can keep track of who’s saying what. For example, Hemingway’s character conversations are infamous as a paragon of crisp dialogue writing. He could create pages of dialogue with nothing more than the actual quotes themselves. It would look like this, and the pace was lightning-fast:
“I told you I wanted nothing to do with her.”
“Well, I thought you were just kidding.”
“Why? You know I don’t kid.”
Of course, this sparsity only works when there are two participants in the dialogue; as soon as you add in a third there’s no way to know who’s speaking. And even if there are only two characters conversing, you can’t go forever. If the reader wants to stop mid-conversation, she would have to mark the speech where she stops and indicate who’s speaking so she’d know for the next time she picked up the book.
But in general, nearly all writing can benefit from these tips. My favorite mantra is: To get spare, you need to pare.