What Not to Write

I’m with Dizzy. Learning what not to write has been equally challenging. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I argued with the “masters” on some of these at first. For instance, my precious adverbs. By now, most of us have heard Stephen King’s admonishment about adverbs. They are doomed to the same fate as those with good intentions. In fact, adverbs do mean well. They do.

When we write, “Stand up,” Sally said, emphatically, we mean for the reader to visualize her scowl, hear the tenor in her voice, know her frustration. But then it hits us: we should tell the reader exactly that. Adverbs are good for what they are – placeholders. There are times, certainly, when we’ll leave one in. For instance, when knowing she is frustrated isn’t important enough to spare the extra words, or when the adverb happens to be the precise word you need. But in the former case, if it isn’t important, leave out the emphasis altogether.

“Stand up!” says enough.

I’ve found few instances where the adverb is the “right” word, but when it is, I leave it. Following rules blindly is never the path to success, in my experience. I will add one blind rule, though: leave out “suddenly” and “just.” As you edit, and suddenly encounter these words, just delete them. It’ll hurt, at first, but your writing will be sharper for it. It’ll suddenly be worth it, I declare, emphatically.

(See how that sucks?)

There are other things I’m learning not to write: descriptions of characters you’ll never get to know well; lyrical paintings of scenery that don’t create a mood or advance the story; dialogue, just for the sake of chatter. And while we’re on dialogue, omit all the “ums” and “wells” and “likes” and other non-useful words we say in real life. There can be a bit, for characterization, but use sparingly. For instance, one of my characters starts to stutter when he’s nervous. I will use a (brief) bit of stuttering to signal the reader his mood. An extra “Wh-“ in front of “what” saves words and allows the reader to get to know the character without the writer’s help.

The most difficult thing for me to learn not to write is the “why” and the “how.” In the real world, I’m a natural teacher. It isn’t my chosen profession, but it has been a lifelong avocation. That tendency comes out in my writing.

I explain why things have happened and how they are happening, sometimes to a fault. What I’ve learned is that readers react to this the same way they do to the jerk in the movies who keeps explaining what’s about to happen or, worse, what happened five seconds ago. If it isn’t unclear, and particularly if it will be revealed in the course of the story, allow the reader’s natural discovery to take place.

“…your reader is at least as bright as you are.” – William Maxwell

Shut it, Maxwell.

Now, I know, in modern fiction, that’s just not done. We need quick reads, and requiring the reader to think certain doesn’t make for quick reading. But see, I have a theory. If I can get a reader to spend $14.95 on a book, it should last them long enough to enjoy it. The trick is knowing what to add, and what to take out.

I do not advocate trying to write without adverbs, without interjections, or descriptions. I cannot emphasize that enough. Let the words flow. However, I would suggest we look at these as signals in our editing. When we come across a generalized term (like an adverb) or a weak word (like suddenly, or large), we should ask ourselves some questions:

  • Does this word describe what we want the reader to know in specific terms?
  • Were we being lazy in our word choice?
  • Does this “show” the story in visual, auditory, sensory terms, or are we simply summarizing “telling” what happened?
  • Can we take out this word, phrase, sentence, or chapter without adversely impacting the story? (If we can, it’s extra baggage.)
  • Is this dialogue important (to the story, characterization, etc.) or is it chatter?
  • Am I describing something that doesn’t matter, or a character who is little more than an extra?
  • Why should the reader care about what I just wrote? (See, you can’t take out all the “justs.”)

Obviously, if you’re asking yourself these questions, you’re thinking instead of writing. Therefore, I suggest leaving this to the editing process. When I’m writing, I use adverbs as placeholders that will help me substitute better descriptors later.

It’s hard to know what not to write. In fact, I think it’s a career-long process. Your list will be different than mine. But if you’re like the rest of us, it will grow over time.

12 Comments

  1. nataliefrag says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. As a novice in the game of writing, I struggle all the time with adverbs, as well as the dreaded “ums” and “ahs” in dialogue. But I’ve also heard people say that it help with voice when you use those, it makes the dialogue sound less formal and more realistic. What do you think? I’ve found that I am constantly bombarded by conflicting opinions on just about anything that has to do with writing,so I would like to add your ideas on the subject to my pot of comments.

    1. I think you should trust your instincts. What I recommend is reading the dialogue out loud. Then you should be able to tell if it sounds natural. I don’t think you have to add a lot of “ums” etc. If you have too many, readers will start to tire of them. I do add some, when they are part of the dialogue.

      For instance, it’s not unusual to have a character answer, “Um, no.” Just don’t go overboard, or think you have to make it sound like completely normal conversation. Remember, you are trying to write “interesting” conversation, which is better than a normal chat between friends.

  2. ceciliag says:

    This is a fantastic piece, I should print it and stick a pin in it for my wall. Good stuff! .. c

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you liked it.

  3. sturner2 says:

    I have seldom sought or spent much in thought on what I aught to not. I enjoyed and agree that this be pined to see and remembered then again by me. (sorry) 🙂

  4. For me what not to write is what I like I ‘should’ write instead of what inspires me. A friend wants me to write about vampires and werewolves- both of which I enjoy but I don;t have a story pounding around in my head with vamps and wolves in it. So I wrote what was there, what my passion was and I hope people find joy in that.

    1. I think one should always write one’s passion, and never what others think should be one’s passion. People will be able to tell if you’re faking it.

  5. This quote reminds me of the Michelangelo quote about sculpting being the act of removing what doesn’t belong…my problem is untangling all the sculptures in my head – they are not very organized.

    1. A profound thought – I suppose you just start with a blank slab of granite, close your eyes, and begin to carve. When the burst of creative energy is spent, perhaps you’ll begin to see different pieces within the mass you’ve created. My first book, because I had never learned how to write a book, or even considered doing so, was actually a 170,000-word monstrosity. After I finished “carving” and began to edit, I realized there were two books, and pieces that didn’t belong in either book.

      If it’s perfect coming out, you didn’t take any chances, and almost certainly won’t be worth much. Be messy, start carving, close you eyes if it gets too scary.

      1. Thank god we have spackle – if we carve away to much, we can always recreate – something Michelangelo didn’t have.

        My stress usually comes from the pressure of trying to create – but really, the creation has already occured – we are just unburying it.

        I would LOVE a 170 word book – I always grieve when I am finished with a story – the window into that life closes – it is like the characters sent me away and I miss them.

        1. There are always new stories. … My 3rd book in the trilogy is 160,000 words, and I could easily write 3 books after that. I won’t though I miss the characters. However, they still exist in my head, and I allow myself to write private adventures just for me. They even have their own Pinterest boards now.

          1. I have not investigated Pinerest yet – will have to some day.

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