Friday, March 25, 2011


Hi folks,

As thinking creatures, most of us look for easier ways to complete tasks. That includes writing. Nothing wrong with that—it’s a mark of intelligence. Sometimes, though, that approach can get us in trouble. We seem to have a need for shortcuts and sometimes end up relying on bumper sticker kinds of slogans to guide us in our writing.

Sayings like: Write what you know. That’s about the silliest advice ever given a writer. If we wrote “what we knew,” we’d be unable to write about murder… unless we’d murdered someone. We’d find it impossible to write stories set in the future or the distant past… unless we’d lived a thousand years or had a time machine. We couldn’t write from the opposite gender’s pov. Or, from the pov of an animal. We couldn’t write about anything we didn’t personally know about. The proper advice is: Write what you can convince the reader you know. Problem is, that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker as easily…

Another of those bumper sticker slogans thrust upon writers is: Show, don’t tell. Like most of these nifty sayings, there’s a germ of truth buried there. The fact is, there are plenty of times in fiction when telling works much better than showing and is the proper thing to do. You can’t show everything. If you did, you’d end up with a… screenplay. This is one reason novels are longer than screenplays. Three-four hundred pages versus a hundred. A lot of those additional pages are devoted to… telling. Exposition/summary. It’s one of the advantages of a novel over a screenplay for a literary or reading experience.


It was not that he was a cowed or naturally timorous person, far from it; but he had been for some time in an almost morbid state of irritability and tension. He had cut himself off from everybody and withdrawn so completely into himself that he now shrank from every kind of contact. He was crushingly poor, but he no longer felt the oppression of his poverty. For some time he had ceased to concern himself with everyday affairs. He was not really afraid of any landlady, whatever plots he might think she was hatching against him, but to have to stop on the stairs and listen to all her chatter about trivialities in which he refused to take any interest, all her complaints, threats, and insistent demands for payment, and then to have to extricate himself, lying and making excuses—no, better to creep downstairs as softly as a cat and slip out unnoticed.

That kind of looks like “telling” or “exposition” to me. And it is. It’s also from a pretty good country writer—a guy named Dostoevsky and it’s from a book which has enjoyed healthy sales, a little tome titled Crime and Punishment. Bet that bumper sticker (Show, don’t tell) wasn’t on his writer’s buggy…

Sayings like: Avoid adverbs and be sparing of adjectives. Which just happens to be the point of today’s discourse.

Why on earth would a writer avoid using adverbs? They’re a legitimate part of speech and, if used properly can be among the strongest tools in the writer’s toolbox. Most will claim they’re the weakest, but I’ll show you some examples where no other part of speech works as well.

The same deal holds with adjectives. Used properly—which means with originality—they can transform your prose.

So where does this advice come from? That’s easy. It comes from the selected reading style of many writing teachers. By “selective reading” I mean lazy reading. A person who sees part of a piece of advice, but either ignores the rest of it or just doesn’t see it—it’s invisible to him or her. If it doesn’t come from lazy reading, it perhaps comes from a predilection for… lazy teaching. It’s just so much easier to tell our little charges to eschew adverbs and most adjectives, rather than actually reading the writer’s work and showing him or her which work well and which don’t and why. To do that would be… work. Or, perhaps this advice comes from the fruit of the same tree—the instructor simply parrots what was taught him or her and accepts everything his or her mentor passed on as gospel without challenging it. Again, a form of laziness.

John Gardner said, “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” William Zinsser said, “Most adjectives are… unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”

Here’s how several generations of writers have read these guys’ advice.

Don’t use adverbs and adjectives.

Which… isn’t exactly what they said. They’re like the Paul Harvey’s of writing instruction. Well, they’re like half of a Paul Harvey. They kind of forget to include that famous “rest of the story.”

You wonder if those who keep parroting this advice on adverbs and adjectives have read what these guys actually said. All of those folks quoted are good, if not, great writers and teachers. Makes sense that what they’re telling us is sound, right? Well, if we actually read what they said precisely. Nary a one of them said: Don’t use adverbs and adjectives. Just about every one of them had a disclaimer. Gardner: “…or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” Zinsser: “Most adjectives…” Notice he didn’t say all; he said most. That sort of means that some adjectives and adverbs work and work well. Zinsser also went on to say: “…they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think…” And, that’s the source of the problem. Writing instructors who pass on these “rules” haven’t stopped to think themselves perhaps, so they’re incapable of recognizing students as being any different from themselves. Writers who just maybe… do stop to think.

What each of these guys is maintaining is that adverbs and adjectives are fine to use… if used judiciously. With originality. That’s the… rest of the story. The important part that never seems to be delivered in some classes and books.

I took a lot of the information here from three sources. One, from the best writer’s textbook ever written, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and from a 2006 article by Ben Yagoda in the NY Times, which you can accesss at: . Also, some of the material here can be found in my writing book, Finding Your Voice.

Used thoughtfully (which some of these writing advisers don’t think you’re capable of, alas), adverbs and adjectives can sharpen and illuminate your prose magnificently, as in the following examples (italics mine):

"In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country-fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof." -Roger Angell on the gridwork at the new baseball stadium in Baltimore 

"She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils." -Sylvia Townsend Warner 

"The Sunday's events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant." -John Updike 

"He had the surface involvement-style-while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind." -Nicholson Baker on Updike 
 “She had been to Germany, Italy, everywhere that one visits acquisitvely.” Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

“She jammed the pedal to the floor, and like something huge and pre-historic and pea-brained, the Jeep leapt stupidly out of its stall.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“So closely had we become tied to the river that we could sense where it lay and make for it instinctively like cattle.” W.D. Wetherell, Chekhov’s Sister

“When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter.” Toni Morrison, Sula

“With a bladdery whack it (the boat) slapped apart and sprang away.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“Hank was not accepted at Harvard Law School; but goodhearted Yale took him.” John Updike, “The Other”

“On the far side of the room, under the moiling dogs the twins are playing.” Francois Camoin, “Baby, Baby, Baby”

Are you gonna tell these people not to use adjectives or adverbs?

My advice isn’t to eliminate adverbs and adjectives at all. Use 'em! Just take some time and use them in an original way. They’ll elevate your writing if you do. Just about everybody who is writing these days is culling out their adverbs and pruning their adjectives. If you can learn to use both in truly original ways, whose work do you think is going to stand out?

You might wonder if I’ve ever given any of my writing students advice to not use adverbs and adjectives. Well, sure. Nobody’s perfect! I’ve also changed. Like they say: If you’re green, you’re growing—if you’re ripe, you’re rotten.” I hope I’m green enough to not keep telling folks the same things, ad nauseum. Especially if I discover the advice was wrong. In this case, I think it is.

The next time somebody delivers a writing “absolute” to you—especially one that could easily fit into a bumper sticker--you might want to look at it with a clear and open mind. Don’t trust everything you hear. In fact, your own instincts are often much better than what others may tell you. Chances are, you’re a writer because you were a reader first, and it’s that reading experience that I suspect has given you the best body of advice you’ll ever get for your work. You’ve already internalized most of what you need to know from reading lots and lots of books. Use it. It’s trustworthy most of the time.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,


mooderino said...

Hey Les,

Excellent post. I think it's just easier to put things in black and white rather than break it down into context-dependent specifics. I blame Old Yahweh, with all his 'Thou shalt not...' mullarky.

You might be a little guilty of only seeing half the picture yourself with your comment on 'Write what you know.' I've never taken that to mean write what you already know. A little research never hurt. Even if it's a story about the future, you should have a fully realised idea of that future before you start writing about it. That's how I see it anyways.

Great blog.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks for your comments, Mooderino. Couple of things--you made my point perfectly when you said "it's just EASIER to put things in black and white." That was my whole point as to why imprecise advice gets passed on. It's easier. Especially for someone who doesn't want to do the work to explain the whole thing. Or, wasn't industrious enough to learn the whole thing to begin with.

As for "write what you know" you may not have taken it for that, but a great many writers do. That was (hopefully) the point. As for a future setting, I'm not sure how someone would "research" that without a time machine... For some things, sure, research can help, but for others, it really doesn't matter. The key (imo) is if you can convince the reader. With or without research. It can be totally bogus, but if the reader (and, by "reader" I mean "readers, plural") buys it, then it worked. The future is perhaps a poor example. The future can he just about anything a writer can imagine. Who's going to prove him/her wrong?

Anonymous said...

We have been having a rollicking discussion of "write what you know" on a discussion board for my MFA program. There are some who believe you should never write outside your own culture. What's your take on this, Les?

Tiffany said...

Ugh. There's so many rules out there. I'm fine with rules to an extent, but I've followed them off of cliffs many a time. Might explain why I'm always so sore...

Anyhoo, I basically said, "Eff you," to about 75% of what I "learned" in my writing classes, because about that same percentage has been proven wrong or been full of exceptions. I've learned to do what works within that story and if anyone has a problem with it, they can follow their rules off a cliff.

I realize I just sounded like someone I complained to you about recently. Hmmmm. Well, we all eat our words.

T.M. Avery

mooderino said...

I was agreeing with you about 'easier' basically meaning lazy advice/interpretations. I think you're absolutely right that what the original tipsters were suddesting: choose your words carefully.

I think research can take many forms. If you're a monk from a solitary order and you decide to write a book from the pov of a modern woman, you probably won't get it right. If you've lived with a woman for 30 years you may have all the research you need (and then some).

As for the future thing, I just mean know for yourself what that future world is. If I write about a man in a room in the future and someone asks me, 'But what kind of government is it?' I should know even if it isn't mentioned in the story, because I should know everything the MC knows.


Les Edgerton said...

Dawnall, my take on someone who says writers shouldn't write "outside their culture" is simple. They're an idiot. I can't even be polite about that. That's the most moronic thing I think I've heard in years.

Here's a story. I'm working with a gifted young writer whom I met and had in class when I was the writer-in-residence at a university. She happens to be a black woman. When I first met her, she was working on the fantasy novel she's still working on (nearly finished and it's great). She told me she had a dilemma. Another writing teacher in the department told her she shouldn't be writing fantasy but should be writing about her "black experience." This writer had not the slightest wish to write about her "black experience" which didn't seem to be much different than any other experience. I told her that was the worst advice I'd ever heard and I can't think of any I've heard since that tops it for ignorance so it's still #1 in terrible advice. It could have ruined her as a writer. Thank God, Samuel Delany didn't get or follow such advice. Or Octavia Butler. This teacher is a nice person... but shouldn't be allowed near students, imo. I suspect you look at such "advice" kind of like I do, Dawnall...

Les Edgerton said...

Tiffany, good for you! And, you know why...

Mooderino, I think we're on the same page. I absolutely do believe in research for certain books. It doesn't have to be formal research--living is research.

I still don't think the future requires research to be believable. Remember, I said, Write what you can CONVINCE the reader you know. Not what you can back up, etc. Just what you can convince the reader. Whatever future world the writer dreams up can work, with or without research, just as long as it's written in a way that convinces the reader to suspend his disbelief and enter into the fictive dream. The future can be virtually anything with any kind of government. I know from experience. I'm 68 and I know if I'd written a book about the future when I was say, 16, none of it would have looked remotely like it looks today!

I don't think we're disagreeing at all!

mooderino said...

I agree!

I've been rooting around in some of your old posts, great stuff. Glad i found this place.


Les Edgerton said...

Dawnall, I couldn't go to bed without one more bit. Speaking about "writing outside one's culture," it's a good thing Mario Puzo didn't hear or take that advice. He wrote a fairly popular book about the Mafia called "The Godfather" while living in Connecticut in a suburb and typing it in is garage on a door laid over some sawhorses. His "culture" was suburban insurance executives. Had never met or even seen a mafiosa. Made it up entire out of whole cloth. The sayings, everything. The actual Mafia is nothing like his creation. Most are barely educated thugs with little to no imagination. But, they liked how they were portrayed so well, they "adopted" the whole schtick--the "sleeping with the fishes" and all of that. Made 'em look romantic and endowed with brains... which most are in short supply of. He admitted readily that it was all invented by him--the language, the culture, everything. No research at all. Later, he said, if he'd known it was going to do so well, he would have spent more time on it and done some research. Which probably would have ruined it. If you've ever known any Mafia you wouldn't be much interested in them. In New Orleans, I was acquainted with the Godfather through one of my girlfriends who he'd "bought" from her mother when she was 8 years old. He likes his women young... Not an unusual thing for some of those old dons... I met her when she was 25 and a call girl. Carlos had kicked her out when she made the mistake of turning 12 and way too old for his tastes. That's the Mafia. It's no wonder they've adopted Puzo's version of their world.

Christine Danek said...

This is a great post. Over the past year, I've been crazed with all the rules shoved down my throat that I think it limited my creativity. I'm finally allowing myself to understand the so called "rules", but keeping my vision true to my heart. My writing is just that, my writing, and I have to believe in it.
I do use adverbs and adjectives, sparingly. Usually, they are the first thing my CPs cut. So thanks for the post. It's refreshing.
Thanks and hope you are well,

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, Les. I was a bit outnumbered though. There were comments like "stealing" and "robbing". It was all based on an article one former classmate read in which a person complained that people outside of his culture should not "pretend" to know his culture well enough to write it. That should be left to his "own" people. My responses were passionate and long. I just could not fathom what our literature would be like if writers had always followed this advice.

Sally Clements said...

To me it seems pretty obvious that the majority of novelists write about a world that they dont personally inhabit. In good writing, they know the characters, and how they're going to respond to whatever slaps them.. I think its interesting, the Puzo thing, because I bet there are a lot of novels using his model of what the mafia is as the basis for their worldbuilding in writing a similar book, in the same way that books written about vampires take their world from the books that went before.
Great examples, Les. I agree with you - these bumper sticker writerly rules are too definite, too stultifying.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Christine. I’m glad you agree—I greatly value your opinion. Rules and guidelines are valuable… provided we know the full rationale behind them and not just the shorthand version. And, they change. And, often. We work with living languages and the culture constantly changes, so nothing is etched in marble. If we look at such pronouncements as writers should—with a healthy dose of cynicism and a “Missouri” attitude (show me), also known as a Hemingway bullshit detector—and if they pass the smell test, then perhaps they’re valuable. I’d also employ askance if the “exceptions to the rule,” whatever the rule, number in the hundreds or thousands. That’s usually a good indicator that the rule sucks and is pretty well useless. At least to my way of thinking.

Dawnall, I’m really sorry you have to deal with folks like that. Been there, done that. Like you, I can’t imagine what our canon would look like if writers followed these concepts. Wait! I do know what it would look like. It would look pretty much like the output of writers in China (the ones who aren’t in jail), or the output of Russian writers before the Cold War ended (who weren’t in the gulag). Which, I suspect, is what these folks want. A kind of censorship. I wonder what Margaret Meade would have written if she thought she shouldn’t “pretend to know” other cultures…

This kind of thought process comes from the politically correct among us. And, anyone who’s followed this blog kind of knows what I think about PCism… The biggest threat to freedom of speech ever perpetuated on America. To say in public that one should only write about one’s own culture is a perfect example of the value of free speech. If you let a person talk long enough, he’ll reveal himself. I think that’s what these people have done. And, it’s not pretty.

Spot-on, Sally! You’re exactly right about Puzo. In fact, look at just about every “mob” movie made since The Godfather, and just about all of them follow that “model.” But, nobody ever accused Hollywood of being creative or accurate… When you get Harvard MBA’s running the show, this is kind of what you should expect. The public, in general, doesn’t want to have to think much with their entertainment, and they oblige them.

It’s why there is research… and there is research. Perfectly pointed out in your own exanples of vampires and other examples of world-building. Unfortunately, today, much so-called research involves drawing from a body of (fictionalized work such as The Godfather and existing vampire novels, just to name two) and sources like Wikipedia. In other words, completely untrustworthy.

It’s like how angels are portrayed in literature. That deal I just wrote about recently where they have wings and arms. No basis whatsoever for this anatomy in the Bible itself. Just the figment of various artists and writer’s imaginations. And, not very imaginative, to be honest. They should at least follow basic rules of anatomy and physiology…

But, they’re here and with each successive book and movie, become ingrained on the (unthinking) public’s consciousness and continue to be used as really poor and totally inaccurate models. It’s one reason I don’t read much fantasy. Most seems to be built on the previous work out there, which is largely unimaginative in nature. Suspending one’s disbelief only works to a certain extent… Especially if it’s almost entirely derivative from an underdeveloped imagination.

Les Edgerton said...

Have to add--I think Mario Puzo is a truly imaginative and extremely creative writer. He created an entirely new world that was completely "believable" to readers and he created it out of whole cloth. Kudos to him! It's the ones who followed him with their novel and movie versions who are the dullards.

It's like the writer I talked about who was writing a fantasy. I've never seen a world such as she's created and while I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist, I bought into it and easily suspended my disbelief. She's a true original as evidenced by the never-before-created world she built. She thoroughly "convinced" me.

Just as Octavia Butler did with her brilliant novel, "Kindred." I'm pretty sure one can't travel back in time, but I bought her world and quite easily. She's got the chops to convince the reader of it. And, like my friend, she didn't copy someone else's version of that world, but created her own original world.

Anne Gallagher said...

What was that saying -- when you need it, the teacher will come.

Thanks for saying adverbs and adjectives are not curses. I can't imaging writing my romance without them. Yes, I have SOME but nowhere near what the romance greats of decades past used to use. There are no HEAVING bosoms in any of my books.

I think too, once you know the rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, POV, how to build a book, you can break them. Rules are made to be broken.

And sometimes too, I think too much is made on show don't tell. Sometimes there is just no other way to get the point across. Sometimes, damn it, you just have to tell. And I don't think it's such a bad thing.

Thanks Les, for another illuminating post. (See how I used that adjective there... if I hadn't, this would just be another POST, instead of a fantastic one. And it goes on and on and on.)

Unknown said...

Thank you for saying what so many knew to be true all along!!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Anne! I always question those "absolutes" in writing. A great many are "Swiss-cheeze" in nature, i.e., full of holes... As for telling, if a writer subscribes to the belief that the building blocks of fiction are scene and sequel (which I do), well... sequel's mostly telling... There's a huge place for telling. What I usually advise is that important things that need to affect the emotion of the reader should usually be expressed in scenes. Other material, also important but not so much as for emotional purposes, can and probably should be included via telling, i.e., exposition/summary. There's a time and place for both.

You're welcome, Elle. And, ain't it th' trut'! Sometimes, we just need someone to say what our instincts tell us to be true. For years and years, every class, every book, every guru I listened to said, to a person, that one should "write as fast as they could. Just get the stuff down in the white-heat of creating and then go back later and rewrite." Well, I did it because... well, everybody said to. But, it went against my instincts. The way I write is to be sure I'm using the perfect word at the time, the perfect sentence, whatever. I edit extensively as I go. It wasn't until I picked up a writing book one day and this guy said it was perfectly okay to edit as you go. That some writers work better that way. That was me! Finally, I had "permission" to do what I always felt was the proper way for me to write. Since then, my writing output soared. I rewrite very, very little. When I was writing as fast as I could, I'd make notes to come back and change things, but by the time I got back to it, I couldn't remember what I thought was wrong with it and it usually ended up unchanged. What I needed--being a writer unsure of myself--was someone in "authority" to tell me what I always knew. We all need that sometimes, I think.

I've just learned more and more to trust my instincts. They've rarely let me down.

Les Edgerton said...

Anne,I have to add... I'm kind of always on the lookout for a "heaving bosom" or two... Don't know as I've ever seen one in the wild, but if any come around, I'm ready...

There are worse things...

"Turgid member" comes to mind...

Sarah Faurote said...

Great blog, Les. I have to admit, your pic is cool. I love it. I hope to see you soon. Love ya, buddy!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sarah. It's been Photoshopped and airbrushed by a guy who works for Playgirl... and it's a stand-in we used for a model...

Hey, we have to get together and celebrate your Art Institute of Chicago news!

Unknown said...

Come on, Les, I've extracted the adjectives you've included as well-thought-out examples:

penumbrous, alembicated, nacreous, infrangible and synovial.

I'm surprised at you! surely you don't advocate using words that no one has ever heard of! I hate it when I have to balance my OED on one knee while I read a novel.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Euclid, actually, I knew most of those. Also, each comes from one per novel... And, those were the examples given by the Times writer. the other ones were better below those and from both Burroway and myself (some of the writers quoted, Starke and Weatherall are faculty friends of mine from Vermont College). But, while I don't advocate being "writerly" I also think a novel should deliver words we don't normally encounter either. And, for most of those, the meaning is fairly clear from the context. While some of those words might not be known by readers who regularly read vampire or horror or romance novels or have a subscription to People Magazine or had to go to a state university, I think most serious writers are fairly familiar with them. (I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek...)

The Teddy Bear Family said...

Oh, thank God! Lazy, my ass! I have never worked so hard in my life to rid the "dreaded" adjective or adverb in my writing. I've gotten to the point that I can get rid of useless ones and rearrange sentences to avoid them, but sometimes, just sometimes, it's important the reader know she's walking softly - she's sneaking, not clomping. I'm tired of writing whole sentences when one word would do. Thank you, thank you, thank you!