Updated: Fixed a few typos in this article. I was so amped to hit “Publish” that I forgot an essential word or thought here and there. Enjoy the improved piece!
Before I trash one of their articles, I want to say that if you’re a writer and you don’t take advantage of the wonderful articles on the website for Writer’s Digest, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You need to have that page bookmarked. Once there, look at the quick links to pages in the navy bar at the top of their page and find “Writing Articles”. That portal will connect you to all kinds of great material. Even the articles with which I disagree are at least important to the dialogue and useful for the questions they raise.
But I’m writing my piece today about an article that I came across titled “9 Simple Ways to Be a Better Writer” with Catherine Coulter. All 9 of her points are good food for thought, but I take issue with her first two points…sort of. Now before I go and lambaste Miss Coulter for her article, let me do a little bit of self-effacing. I think a scoreboard check is in order. Miss Coulter has published “a stunning 62 New York Times bestsellers” and I have published…hold on, let me check the numbers…carry the one… take the root… take pi to the sixteenth place… ah yes, ZERO NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERS. So, she clearly knows what she is talking about, but I just want to play devil’s advocate.
Professional authors who give advice to aspiring authors always seem to tell us the same thing and Miss Coulter echoes this sentiment: “Always kill with lean writing…sloppy writing is not acceptable.” My problem with this generalization is that it implies that all longer and more descriptive writing is sloppy. I don’t think that’s the case. Caveat: I HATE reading longer, more descriptive writing. But I also don’t think it’s fair to just hand a machete to aspiring writers and tell them to get to work chopping up everything they’ve written. Leaning up one’s prose is absolutely essential, but I have read tons of flowery, pretentious, slogging books that somehow still managed to not only get published but also become mandatory high school reading.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Also, when did this boycott of adjectives begin? Coulter’s thoughts comprise the third article I’ve read this week telling people to steer clear of adjectives and adverbs. Coulter fields the issue a bit more admirably, telling people to “treat adverbs like cloves of garlic—a few go a long way” and I wholeheartedly endorse that analogy. When it comes to descriptors, she also says “if you wouldn’t say something aloud, then don’t write it”, which I think is also well-stated. If your own tongue can’t juggle the adjectives you’ve included, then your reader will probably also trip on them like burglars in a Home Alone movie (that might be a contender for my strangest simile).
So I’ll be the first to say that my problem in this case has nothing to do with Miss Coulter’s thoughts, which I just admitted to endorsing. My issue, I suppose, is more with the headline of all these articles that tells authors to “Nix the Adjectives” or “Lose the Adjectives” or “Feed the Adjectives to a Poacher’s Pit of Rabid Hyenas” (I made up one of those three). Why? Because you absolutely should not throw out ALL your adjectives! Adjectives are wonderful, awesome, spectacular, amazing, and absolutely useful from time to time. However, adjectives are not essential to your plot and PLOT IS EVERYTHING. There was never a plot description that read (you’ll want to utilize the token movie theater action film voice for this): “In a world… where Ernest Smith was elderly, feeble, and irritable… one young, precocious, blonde six-year-old girl dared to make him feel content and young again… by reminding him how beautiful and cathartic the world can be.” Cue Phil Collins music.
See how those adjectives weigh down the pacing? Few things need multiple adjectives. You don’t need to over-describe your protagonist because, ultimately, it isn’t important what color your character’s eyes or hair are. You should generously leave some of that for your reader to decide. The more you involve your reader in your story by giving them a role in the development of your world, the better off you’ll be. Your novel is like a house and adjectives should be little more than nails and screws—not the whole foundation.
I’m also flabbergasted by her assertion that writers should avoid other words for “said”. In Miss Coulter’s defense, her point is that alternatives for “said” are often unnecessary, which is true. Her best example is that it is redundant to say something like “I’m sorry,” he apologized. However, my counterargument would be: “I’m sorry,” he whispered. The second example gives us the same phrase but we now have a better understanding of how “he” said it and, depending on the context leading up to it, that could change everything! Coulter maintains “every time you use a substitute for ‘said’, the reader blinks and you’ve pulled him out of the scene.” Is that true? I’ll have to ask you all, because I think that idea is absolutely absurd. I think I stopped depending on “said” when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. Let’s go back to my example.
Can you imagine a reader reading the sentence “I’m sorry,” he whispered and then going, “Wait, he what??? He whispered? Damn, I am SO freaking confused. I don’t even know if I can finish this book! I have completely lost track of what is happening. This no-good hack Sean Chandler is writing at a million miles an hour and I just cannot keep up!”
Obviously Miss Coulter is not an imbecile, so I’m not going to imply that she meant anything remotely close to that. I would like to think that the closer middle ground goes as follows: You should not feel obligated to avoid “said” when it is a perfectly acceptable word. If you feel like you are using “said” back to back to back, then there might be another problem with your structure or too many characters present for the scene. When opting not to use “said”, however, avoid unnecessarily cumbersome expressions—keep it simple—and remember Miss Coulter’s advice on redundancy. Once again, she knows what she’s talking about.