Monday, March 31, 2014

The DEADLY -LY -Stronger Writing #6

The Deadly –ly

“Ly words almost always catch the author in the act of explaining dialogue – smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.” Self Editing for fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Pg 51

I doubt there is a writer out there who has not been told to eliminate the -ly words, or at least to limit their use severely. The experts tell us -ly words are the mark of a lazy writer. 

Writing the first draft we use whatever easy word comes to mind to help us get the story on the page. In the editing process, we need to search out those weak verb/adverb structures, the way a cat hunts a mouse, and find more specific verbs. One common place we find them is coupled with said and in other constructions to define emotions.

 - If you use an –ly word to tell us how a character is feeling, use action to show us.

She was angry with Tom.
She glared at Tom, her teeth clenched and her fists bunched at her sides. 

- If you use an -ly word to insert emotions, use stronger dialogue.

“How should I know,” she said furiously.
“How the hell should I know?” she said.

- If you use an –ly word to enhance a verb, find a stronger verb.

She walked slowly (or unsteadily) down the street.
She strolled (or tottered) down the street.


Remember, when editing use that find function. Check your –ly words and be honest, isn't there a better way to say it?

10 comments:

  1. Again such good advice. I agree action speaks so much better than words. I don't even like she/he said. Maybe it's said we should think of too? She was furious or some function to show she was - instead of she said furiously? That's the type of thing I look at when I'm editing.

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    1. Mary - She was furious is still "telling." The general consensus is that "said" is an invisible word - like breathing it is just there but we are not conscious of it. Readers skim past it, paying attention to the words that matter.

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  2. Great advice. One of the easiest fixes!

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    1. For sure, Diana. Easy to spot and once you get the hang of it, easy to fix. And the bonus is that the changes usually boost the "showing" component in our writing.

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  3. You're right, of course, though the anti-adverb animus is a matter of fashion, too. American pulp writers in the '20s, '30s, and '40s, filled their work with adverbs, and not only the hacks. I think even the best of the bunch, Dashiell Hammett, would work an adverb in now and then.

    These guys would write sentences like "A light shone pinkly," and one can see where they might regard that a punchy, off-beat way of saying, "A pink light shone."

    =======================
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

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    1. Peter, most certainly a function of "fashion." I always loved adverbs, and "a light shone pinkly" makes me smile if nothing else. Using more of our "ly" friends might make the stories easier to write. These days I feel like a conquering warrior when I find a stronger verb to do the job. I can only trust that my readers like the results.

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  4. Preference these days decidedly favors showing rather than telling, sparing use of adverbs, and a crisp style. My reading habits as well as my job (I'm a newspaper copy editor) dispose me to favor all those as well.

    I read a fair amount of hard-boiled crime fiction. It looks to me as if you write romance. Interesting that you should favor clipped prose and be skeptical of adverbs as well. Stereotypes would have hard-boiled crime all clipped, and romance all lush and gush. My eyes have been opened!

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    1. Peter my background is in trade writing, newspaper articles and teaching Grade 6 English. I read hard-boiled crime fiction as well and like the action and quick pace. My genre is "cozy" mystery, or malice domestic. I attempt to write fast paced stories with occasional down moments for contrast. There is definitely a touch of romance. I do like my main characters to get along and have some sizzle between them, but their intimate moments are none of my business so to speak.

      My dedication to "strong" writing with active sentence structures and specific words as opposed to adverb and adjective use and a proliferation of "to be" verbs waltzing around with participles and infinitives started with my mother, a 1930's English teacher. A writer herself, she disdained "lazy" writing. A good deal of romance writing is "lush" but it's not my style.

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  6. It does my heart good to find someone who recognizes that forms of "to be" are deadly unless one is Shakespeare. And, as an expatriate Canadian living in the U.S., I enjoyed seeing "Grade 6" rather than "sixth grade." Zed forever!

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