Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday's Writing Tip: Time to Unclutter Your Manuscript?

"Do not overwrite. Oftentimes novice writers...tend to use way too many exclamation points, far too many adjectives and adverbs, and want to show off their vocabulary. Less is more. Stick to the meat of the story. Understatement is powerful." Marvin D. Wilson, Meet the Editor

I've been guilty of throwing useless clutter around my manuscript, but I'm improving!

Craft books tell you to watch the use of adverbs and adjectives.  Stephen King, in On Writing, says, "An adverb is a pernicious dandelion to be rooted out the first chance you get."

Adverbs, those words usually ending in "ly", modify verbs.  Robert Masello, in Robert's Rule's of Writing, points out that opponents of the adverb claim that if writers used properly chosen verbs, adverbs wouldn't be necessary. 

I'm glad to know Masello doesn't completely agree with this. I like adverbs, used in moderation, and  I have yet to read a novel that's completely adverb free!  Masello says that adverbs, in many cases, are used for emphasis.

Here's an example I've written:

Pam, the murder suspect, walked slowly into the room as though nothing was wrong.

Pam, the murder suspect, strode into the room as though nothing was wrong.

Pam, the murder suspect, strode leisurely into the room, as though nothing was wrong.

The last sentence uses a more effective verb.  The adverb is used for emphasis and reflects Pam's mood.

Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.  They can be misused a lot more often than adverbs because they tend to be used in clusters.  Save clustering for peanuts and chocolate.  Adjective pile up can cause a manuscript to become a casualty in an agent's office and end up no further than the shredder.

Here's an example of adjective overload:

The young red haired boy ran wildly through the warm crashing waves of the frothy, turquoise Atlantic, enjoying the feel of the cool salty seaweed filled water against his skin.

That's just too much to wade through, but the example below is clean and tight:   

The young boy charged through the Atlantic, enjoying the feel of the frothy waves against his skin.

When adjectives are used at a minimum, and adverbs carefully chosen to add emphasis, they're much more effective.  And so is the flow of your writing.  As Marvin D. Wilson said in the above quote, "Less is more."

Is your clutter under control? Thanks for stopping by!


The Poet said...

Hello Maria,
Thanks for the great advice.

William Kendall said...

I'll have to answer that question when I get to revising, but I'm always trying to pay attention to those ly words.

Unknown said...

Good post. I like to see authors err on the side of too few modifiers rather than too many, but you're absolutely right that these parts of speech are an important tool in any writers toolbox. The key, as with any part of writing, is understanding how to use them effectively.

Katie O'Sullivan said...

Nice post! A great reminder as we sit down to face the page - less is more. Well, except if it's chocolate. Then only more is more ;-)

Raquel Byrnes said...

Okay, now I have to go check. Thanks for the examples.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Colene Murphy said...

Awesome stuff. It's amazingly easy to overwrite. And takes a lot of practice to learn to write just enough. Good reminders!

Golden Eagle said...

Now that I'm revising one of my novels, I'm being forced to pay attention to things like overwriting--I did it a lot during the first draft.

Old Kitty said...

Thanks for these great examples! My first draft of my wip was adjective overload city!!! It really scaared me!! It's something I always alwys have to be consciously aware of as subconsciously I do suffer from over clutter of words!! Tut, tut me! Take care

the oldguey said...

Yes, an author can overwrite, but writing to the lowest, common denominator would be like asking Picasso to limit himself to blacks and whites. There is a balance, but we should refrain from insulting our readers' intelligence by using dummy down techniques. Instead, write to encourage them to come up to a level of literacy and in the process use a wide spectrum of color.

Unknown said...

Since I, too, blog about cooking AND writing like Maria, there is a conscious understanding of the relationship. Too much sauce, too much marinade, too many herbs---nothing of the meat can be experienced if the flavoring is overwhelming.

The symmetry between the enhancement and that which it enhances is profoundly difficult but highly worthwhile.

Melissa said...

This is a really great post. Like you, I enjoy adverbs in moderatioN!

Maria McKenzie said...

@Andy:You're welcome! Thanks for stopping by:).

@William: Yeah, those ly words are pretty easy to use!

@K.M.: Thanks! I've learned that using them effectively takes practice.

@Katie O.: I agree! Less is more, except where chocolate is concerned;).

@Raquel: No problem!

@Colene: It's amazing how difficult effective underwriting can be compared to overwriting!

@Golden Eagle: I think all first drafts fall prey to overwriting:).

@Old Kitty: You're welcome! BTW, I'm no stranger to Adjective Overload City:).

@Oldguey: Well said!

@HB Wichita: I love the way you put that and relate it to food! That's so true:).

@Melissa: Thanks! As always, moderation is the key:).


Carol Riggs said...

Great examples! LOL--I so had to laugh at your splashing through the sea example, and you saying "that's just too much to WADE through." Punny, punny! ;o)

Maria McKenzie said...

Glad you liked my examples! I didn't even catch that pun:)!

Lisa Gail Green said...

GREAT post!! And I love the examples. Yes, I agree, when used well adverbs are A-okay.

Sonia G Medeiros said...

Oops...lost my other comment.

Thanks for the examples and advice. I have to run through my MIP and look for any excesses of adverbs.