Friday, May 15, 2020

What was said, and who said it? If you’ve built the context, your reader will know how it was said and often who said it. 

Kill your fancy attributions, and the adverbs that follow after them. If your characters are “retorting,” “complaining,” “exclaiming,” and “musing,” and if they’re doing it “assertively,” “whiningly,” “angrily,” or “thoughtfully,” you’re probably just repeating yourself, maybe more than once.  

“Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” she complained, angrily.

Readers sigh and close the book. The writing is shallow when you tell them rather than show them. Primary school teachers taught us to fatten our prose with verbs and adverbs. They were wrong. Free yourself!

Characters say things while they’re doing things. If the doing is done well, you can cut the fat.

Debbie pulled the curtain aside. “Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” she complained, angrily.


Debbie pulled jerked the curtain aside open. “Look at him, mowing the lawn in the snow!” she said, angrily.

Readers need attribution verbs sometimes, to keep track of a conversation. “Said” is perfect. Your editor will likely tell you this after she strikes your fancy attributions. “Said” is a nearly invisible word, like “the” or “and.” Anything else calls the reader’s attention to the word itself. And once they are forced to remember they’re reading words, the curtain is pulled back, and there you are standing at your contraptions, pushing buttons and pulling levers. 

On the other hand, those fancier verbs of attribution and their accompanying adverbs can sometimes be just what you need. They are the expensive seasonings in your spice cabinet; they should be used sparingly, with measurement and forethought. Let them be like truffle oil and saffron. Use them where they fit perfectly to enhance the flavor of your writing without calling attention to themselves. Afford yourself only a few drops, or a single string; here and there; an I-can-count-on-five-fingers-the-number-of-times amount of them in your book. Used in this way, they won’t overpower your writing, and your readers will more fully enjoy their experience.

James Elliott Mitchell owns a small publishing company, and occasionally gets to work on his own writing. Learn more about him HERE.

Search Our Site