October 30, 2003

Advice for Writers

Lynn Sislo just read some advice for writers that struck her the wrong way. Me, I think Lynn misses the point in a couple of places--though that's the fault of the author of the advice.

Lynn quotes:

3. EMPTY ADVERBS Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally - these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.

She feels that this rule is contradictory with--excuse me--contradicts the writer's previous rule about avoiding flat prose. I disagree. When I write, I try to write with nouns and verbs, and avoid using any adjectives and adverbs at all. I can't quite manage it--but the result is that I only use them when they add value.

She then quotes,

Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the "to be" words - "am," "is," "are," "was," "were," "be," "being," "been" and others - you'll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl....

Here's Lynn's appalled that evidently we don't even get to use the verb "to be",
but I don't think that's the point.

I think the writer is suggesting that writers should avoid using the passive voice. It is understood, of course, that sometimes it is necessary to write in this way. But for the most part, my prose is read more happily by others if I avoid it.

Or, as I might rephrase it,

Avoid using the passive voice. Sometimes you'll have to. But you'll write more enjoyable prose if you avoid it.

Passive voice tends to be more wordy, too.

Finally, Lynn's mistaken about one other thing as well--she thinks she doesn't write well, when in fact she writes simply, directly, and clearly. 'nuff said.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 30, 2003 07:47 PM