Three Writing Tenets I Try To Follow

Quick Caveat: These tenets are what/how I strive to write. I adhere to them to the best of my ability, but some things are harder to avoid than others.

The first half of 2019 has seen huge strides in my novel’s progress. As much, if not more, than the last couple years all put together. It’s rather exciting as I feel momentum build, and since epiphany strikes without warning, by the time I upload one of these posts, story developments could have changed already.

To that end, I’ll likely refrain from writing about specific story elements that have supposedly been decided, for no reason other than how mercurial the creative process can be. For today, I feel compelled to put down some tenets, some writing laws if you will, that I try my best to follow. They are:

  1. Avoid the Passive Voice

  2. Avoid using Adverbs

  3. Show Don’t Tell Whenever Possible

passive

  1. Passive Voice

We’ll first shine a light on the passive voice.

Unsure what that is? Easy: a sentence contains the passive voice if it contains the words “was” or “were.”

You’ll find numerous articles about the passive voice, and why it’s out of fashion. You’ll also hear it in a lot of modern books, both good and those with opportunities for improvement. Mostly it’s about how the use of was/were to describe things has a sort of, well, archaic feeling at best, lazy at worst.

I won’t be the first to suggest that the Passive Voice ought to be replaced with an Active Voice whenever possible. It’s the difference between the following two sentences:

  • (Passive) The sky was gray and cloudy.
  • (Active) Clouds rolled across a gray sky.

Simple and a bit lame of an example, if I’m being honest, the point is that rather than describe how something/someone was being, describe what it was doing. This can be done easily enough by writing around the usage of the word “was.”

The difference between “it was raining out in the cobbled street” and “the cobbled streets were slick with rain” and “she stepped out into the rain, the cobbles slick with rain” is rather substantial for people who care about words.

The result will be more dynamic sentence structures and, more often, a more lively scene. In other words, show things that are happening, rather than describing how things were.

There will be times when it’s unavoidable. There will be times when you really can’t be bothered to write a poetic sentence, and just getting through the street, rain and cobbles be damned, simply matters more to the plot.

Those cases will arise and you’ll know them when you hit them. As for me, well, I try to keep those moments to a minimum.

 

2. Adverbs

Adverbs are adverbs. Most of them end in -ly.

  • Clouds rolled quickly across a gray sky.

Stephen king once said, in his highly recommended work On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft…

adverbs

Using adverbs without care can become a crutch. I’ve read some opinions from editors who regard adverbs as lazy, excessive embellishment, used for nothing more than trying to prettify your prose.

An adverb is better used for speech, or for a text message. Maybe a forum or a blog. But for prose of your novel? You’ve had time to think up each and every sentence. Craft it well! Your writing will be better for it.

She zoomed speedily…

He whispered quietly…

They yelled loudly…

The verb already describes the situation just fine, without the adverb. In those pissant examples, the adverb is nothing short of redundant.

So, I use adverbs sparingly, if at all.

 

3. Show Don’t Tell

Then there’s Show Don’t Tell. This is a given for anyone worth their salt, and I write it here as someone who feels they’ve worked their way to come and recognize the value in this and a long road of mistakes.

Show me the moon

Showing the reader things, rather than telling them how things are, might sound confusing. Consider the following example sentences:

  • (Telling) She was eight years old and she had long blonde hair and dark skin.
  • (Showing) Eight hard summers bleached her hair to the color of wheat and darkened her complexion.

See the difference? Whenever possible, paint a picture with your words, don’t inform the reader of how people are feeling, or why they’re doing things. Show the characters reacting to things.

~ ~ ~

So that’s three tenets to which I try to adhere whenever humanly possible. I’ve always noticed my writing is better when I do.

Do you have any of your own?

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