Cutting without carnage—the adjectival challenge

A couple of weeks ago I attended a day-long fiction-writing boot camp with Nora Profit, who “teaches writers to be authors” through her business, The Writing Loft.

Much of the information was review, but I took away two valuable lessons and one that must be applied judiciously.

English: The standard order of operations in a...

The standard order of operations in arithmetic. In fiction writing, (1) should certainly be figuring out what you want to say and why you want to say it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote in a previous blog post about one of Nora’s teaching points: the value of coming up with a goal statement for every piece you write. I am still struggling to create this for “Dance of Souls,” which has been finished for almost two years and published for almost one. Needless to say, deciding why you are writing the book after publishing it is hardly the ideal order of operations. I’m working on a goal statement for my novel-in-progress that I can commit to before I finish the next draft.

The other valuable takeaway from the boot camp was the importance of scrutinizing every scene for its emotional impact on the reader by asking “What do you want the reader to think while reading the scene? What do you want the reader to feel?” I am asking these questions as I work on revising my first draft. It’s tedious work, but then, lots of writing is.

My faith in these two activities was bolstered by the fact that I employed both for the first time in writing “The Boy in the Window,” which won two awards.

Now for the third takeaway, imparted in the form of an imperative.

Do away with adverbs and adjectives.

To be fair, Nora conceded that maybe you don’t need to cut every one.

I understand why she admonishes writers, especially new ones, to stay away from these parts of speech. Too often, weak writing relies on strings of adjectives because the writer has not figured out what he or she wants to say. “Weak dialogue depends on adverbs, rather than the strength of the words or the character’s actions, to convey tone,” (she said censoriously).

English: Ernest Hemingway with American writer...

Ernest Hemingway with American writer Janet Flanner. Appropriately for the boot camp metaphor, both wear U.S.A. military uniforms, as war correspondents in the liberation of Paris in the end of World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But strip all qualifying words from your fiction and you end up as Hemingway (not a bad fate, perhaps). In the worst case, though, you might end up an emotionless writer without an identifiable voice.

I struggle with this issue as I revise the first draft of my current novel. How much do I strip away? What words are necessary to tell the story? Which are essential to convey the essence of a character? And can I find faith in my own abilities as a writer to answer these questions?

How do you walk the line between following the prescription for “good writing” and staying true to your voice? Comment and let me know.

If you’re interested in a peek into my editing process, see below. I reproduced the first draft of this blog post exactly as I wrote it, before any editing.

ROW80 Check-In

My commitment for the next round is to complete a second draft, which means editing for emotional impact (as described above) and line editing. There are 22 chapters, so that goal translates to a relatively blistering pace of two chapters a week. I have already done one; I am at work on another. Stay tuned.

First Draft of This Blog Post, If You’re Interested

I have had a busy two weeks. To be fair, my whole life always seems busy and I don’t think it is going to change much going forward.

A couple of weeks ago I took a day-long fiction-writing “bootcamp” with Nora Profit, whose business, The Writing Loft, “teaches writers to be authors.” Much of the information was review for someone who has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and a master’s degree in magazine journalism.

I got two valuable things from the day, one of which I wrote about earlier after hearing Nora speak at a CWC meeting. The first is the importance of scrutinizing every scene for its emotional impact on the reader by asking “What do you want the reader to think? What do you want the reader to feel?” after reading the scene. I have folded those questions into the revision of my first draft.

The other valuable takeaway was coming up with a goal statement. This is something I am still struggling to create for “Dance of Souls,” which has been finished for almost two years and published for almost one. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s the ideal order of operations, so I’m working on something for my novel-in-progress that I can commit to before I finish the next draft. Thanks to my writing partner, I’m getting close.

My faith in these two activities was bolstered by the fact that I employed both for the first time in writing my prize-winning story, “The Boy in the Window.”

The third thing I took away was really more of a reminder of something I already knew, but it is a bit more troubling. It was Nora’s admonition to do away with adverbs and adjectives.

Now, to be fair, she did temper her admonition. Maybe not every one. And I understand exactly where she is coming from. Too often, weak writing is overly reliant on a string of adjectives to try to convey something: the old “tell” vs. “show.” But strip all qualifying words from your fiction and you end up as Hemingway or worse, a stilted, wooden-sounding writer without a voice of your own.

I am struggling with exactly this issue right now. How much do I strip away? What words are essential to tell my story? What are essential to convey the essence of a character? And can I find faith in my own abilities as a writer to know the answers to these questions?

Now, for an interesting exercise. Below, see the entire blog post as first drafted. You can let me know if I have edited wisely.

11 thoughts on “Cutting without carnage—the adjectival challenge

  1. Great wisdom to impart from that workshop! Thanks Audrey! I struggle with that question too. I try to think of the “rules” as guidelines. Policies of sorts. Their implementation is where things get wiggy. Cut all adjectives and adverbs from your book is too stringent. But questioning why they are there is an important activity. The only thing I think we really need to adhere to is to “Entertain the reader.” How we do that is up to us, but if something isn’t providing a great reading experience, it needs to be fixed.

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  2. I’ve often seen wonderful, but unconfident, writers blasted in writing workshops and groups where some tyrant feels it his/her duty to yammer on about ‘the rules’. It’s the hardest thing for me to sit on my hands and not throw things at the lecturer’s great big head in these instances. I can only imagine the confusion it engenders. It must be debilitating. And the odd thing I’ve observed is these writers being lectured are sometimes much better writers then the person dishing up the rules. I am extremely reluctant to think of rules as anything more then suggestions. I cringe at the thought of telling a budding Faulkner – for instance…since you mention him Audrey (he was a wonder, wasn’t he?), that they should or shouldn’t do something different. Seriously, it makes my face hot just imagining it.

    I think the best way to learn to write well is to read lots. And as for voice, whatever comes naturally for each piece. The worst voice to read, for me, is that stilted literary voice that sounds like the writer is trying so very hard to ‘sound’ literary. Ugh!

    Enjoyable (and extremely well-written) post, Audrey:-)

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    • Your description makes me want to light into those workshop leaders, too!

      I agree that there’s nothing worse than that stilted literary voice that’s trying too hard.

      This post must have struck a chord. I have gotten several passionate and well-considered responses from writers–glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. It is an interesting question regarding voice and good writing but I suspect they are one and the same, meaning a writing voice that is pure, one you have honed, is good writing. Similarly, with adjectives and adverbs it is not how many but the way they are used, effectively or not, which is the same for verbs and nouns. We can read and hear what works in each of our sentences. So, it seems to me that the more we write, the finer we are as writers for in essence, we are watching ourselves, along with our stories, grow.

    I do agree that fewer is better when it comes to adjectives and adverbs just as I agree with “omit needless words” from The Elements of Style but I try to remember that creativity needs a bit of room as well.

    This is such a fine post, really well-written and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it.

    Karen

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    • I just happened to be taking a break after another couple of hours of editing when I saw your reply. Thank you for the kind words about the post. What you’re saying resonates for me. I try to follow the guidelines, but not so rigidly as to whack all the life out of my sentences. There’s got to be a little room for gut feeling and artistry. Otherwise we might as well just create a computer program to write fiction! (Or has somebody already done that? :-))

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  4. Kudos to you for posting your first draft along with the finished product, which, by the way, is much cleaner than my first draft of a post. Which is why I’ll never follow suit–I’m too chicken.:)

    I tend to go easier on myself with adjectives than adverbs, but more so in my casual blog writing than in my fiction writing. But even there, I’m sure I use more than I should. But every time I read something saying writers should minimize the adjectives, I read a novel by a great writer and see descriptive sentences full of adjectives. What gives? I’m definitely harder on adverbs. Don’t like to see them as much.

    As always, great post.

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    • How right you are about the great writers who break the rules! I keep coming back to William Faulkner, a long-sentenced, multi-adjective writer if there ever were one. He was a huge influence on me and I love getting lost in his paragraph-long sentences, not reading them so much as absorbing and getting swept away. I feel certain his prose would have been shredded in a workshop.

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      • So I guess what it all means is that if you’re a newbie, you better follow the rules. If you’re a well-established writer, you can do as you please. Guess that’s pretty much how life goes in all avenues, isn’t it?:)

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        • That is true. But somehow I don’t think Faulkner’s early stuff was any more conformist. I think he just had a vision and the confidence to stick to it. On the other hand, the publishing world was radically different in the 1930s, so he had some hope of being published. It’s a different game today, for sure.

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