Writers: Stop Doing This!

So I was on Twitter yesterday (my first mistake) and I came across this gem by an actual literary agent with an actual literary agency.

Delete all the adjectives and adverbs from your book. All of them. Get rid. Your book will read better, and be more appealing, as a direct result.

The direct result here was that the agent got body slammed from forty directions at once and took the tweet down. So perish all stupid writing tips. Except it won’t perish, because the tweet in question had been liked 40+ times and retweeted eight before Writing Twitter descended in a cloud of harpy wings. Some people read that and thought, “Ooh, agent advice!” and ran off to take all the adjectives and adverbs out of their MS. This stuff does harm.

I asked on Twitter for the stupid prescriptive writing advice people receive. Here is an incomplete list of the responses.

  • Don’t start with the weather.
  • Don’t use “said”.
  • Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
  • Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.
  • Don’t use indirect speech.
  • Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
  • Don’t use dialect.
  • Use proper names, not pronouns.
  • Don’t overuse proper names.
  • Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).
  • Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
  • Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
  • Don’t use “was” at all.
  • Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form. (Seriously.)
  • Don’t use auxiliary verbs because they ‘slow things down’. (“I had met him before”, “you could go”.)
  • Don’t use fragments (i.e. every sentence must have a verb).
  • Don’t have simultaneous action. Two things cannot happen at the same time, apparently.
  • No disembodied parts. (“His fingers slid down her leg.”)
  • Don’t use first person narrative.
  • Don’t use second person narrative.

(wait for it…)

  • Don’t use third person narrative.
  • Don’t write in present tense.
  • Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
  • Don’t begin sentences with adverbs or conjunctions.
  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.

I swear to you, all the above are responses to one tweet. This is stuff writers are being told, and they are being told it by agents, editors at publishing houses, freelance editors, beta readers, teachers, blog posts, every jerk who did one term of grammar and thinks CMOS has legal force, and other writers who have internalised the drivellings of the above.

If you’re at a loose end, a fun thing to do is go through that list and find brilliant counterexamples. It won’t take long. Here, I’ll go first.

  • Don’t start with the weather.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

(1984, George Orwell.)

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

(Bleak House, Charles Dickens, and there’s another four paragraphs of this.)

 ***

There are, I think, four things going on in that list of idiocy. One is good advice turned into bad rules, one is pig ignorance, one is personal preference/prescriptivism, and the last is bias. Let’s do the easy one first.

Good advice turned into bad rules

Sticking with the weather example: Anyone who has read slush, or English homework, will be painfully familiar with books that open with the weather, and wimble around in unengaging description until the author finds the plot. It’s an easy way into the story, and people taking the easy way rarely do their best work. (There’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is a classic bad-book quote.)

Weather openings can indeed be slow and unengaging. But you don’t have to stop doing a thing because some people do it badly. You just have to do it well.

That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…

(The Rapture, Liz Jensen.)

The same principle applies to this delightful string of admonitions.

  • Use proper names, not pronouns.
  • Don’t overuse proper names.
  • Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).

You just know what’s happened here, don’t you?

And round and round we go. (Since you ask, the answer is obviously to use all three mindfully and in a varied way. “Jenny gripped the rail and tugged at the gun in Natalie’s hand as hard as she dared. She needed it and the bloody woman wasn’t letting go.”)

The same goes for many more prohibitions, “never do”s that ought to be phrased as “keep an eye out”. “Consider your use of adverbs carefully” is good advice; “cut all adverbs” is not. I did an entire blog post on the absurd “disembodied parts” shibboleth which sums up most of my feelings on all this.

Pig Ignorance

This plays a larger part than you may think. Look at this lot.

  • Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
  • Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
  • Don’t use “was” at all.
  • Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form.

What’s going on here? Well, “don’t use passive voice” is a very common bit of writing advice. We all mock the politician who says “mistakes were made” instead of “I made a mistake”. And passive voice can be distancing or unengaging. “The bell was rung, the dogs were released, and the fox was quickly brought to ground” is not a thrilling description of a hunt.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. It means you should use it carefully, e.g. when you need to foreground the object of the action rather than the actor. If Zainab is being unexpectedly invested as Queen of the Fairies, we might well write “The crown was placed on her head, and rainbow light flooded the room” rather than wasting everyone’s time with specifics of who placed the crown. Equally, if our POV protagonist Jim has been captured and has a bag over his head, it makes sense to write “His arm was jerked up behind his back” rather than “Someone jerked his arm up behind his back.”

Note that, in giving the above examples, I used two passives: Zainab is being invested, Jim has been captured. Have a quick go at rewriting the para in the active voice and you will swiftly see why passive is useful there.

So “don’t use passive” is bad advice. Yet people give it, and having given it, they extrapolate to this extraordinary and bizarre belief that “was” indicates passive voice. So you will find people telling you that “He was hit by the zombie” and “He was running from the zombie” are both passive. (I am using zombies here as there is a helpful rule of thumb: if you can add “by zombies” it’s passive. Thus “The crown was placed on her head [by zombies]” and “She was crowned [by zombies]” are both passive, but “She was queen” and “She was ruling Fairyland with an iron fist” cannot have [by zombies] and are thus active.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with not being able to analyse a sentence for passives, gerunds, or participles. Plenty of people are not native speakers, neurodivergent, or didn’t get that sort of education. You can easily have no idea what gerunds are while using them impeccably and effectively in your speech and writing. But there is everything wrong with giving prescriptive advice based on things you don’t understand, and people need to stop that right now.

Because what’s apparently happened is that people have taken the already bad advice “don’t use passives”

he was hit by the ball

and extrapolated it to “was –ing” forms that look like passives

he was hitting the ball

I was going to the shop

and then extended that to the frankly insane ban on “was”, as though you can use English while eliminating the verb “to be”.

I was the queen at last!

This is ridiculous nonsense whipped up out of half-understood precepts. Anyone who tells you not to use “was” is an idiot and should not be listened to, by zombies or anyone else.

Preference and prescriptivism

  • Don’t use first person narrative.
  • Don’t use second person narrative.
  • Don’t use third person narrative.
  • Don’t write in present tense.
  • Don’t use indirect speech.
  • Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
  • Don’t use “said”.
  • Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
  • Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.

That’s not writing advice, that’s “things the speaker doesn’t like”. The two are not the same. If you can make second person present tense work, and you’re doing it for a reason, more power to your elbow. Using only “said” is dull, using a string of “averred/opined/murmured/voiced/pronounced” is irritating. One story may need a prologue and another doesn’t. It depends.

  • Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
  • Don’t use fragments (ie every sentence must have a verb)

Prescriptivist garbage from the school that says you shouldn’t split infinitives because Latin didn’t. What do we want? Verbless fragments! Why do we want them? For effect! How do we use them? Mindfully!

This stuff makes me genuinely angry. Authorial voice depends on choices like tense and person. The rhythm of your prose depends on varying sentence length and structure. Advice like the above is intrusive and damaging, and worst of all pointless. I strongly recommend asking why any of the above is bad, and seeing if you can get an answer better than “I don’t like it”, “I heard it was wrong” or “It just is”. I bet you won’t.

Bias

Just take a look at the list of don’ts. Don’t use adverbs, adjectives. Always use active voice. Write simple sentences. Don’t play with form. Don’t use dialect.

What it means is “write like a certain type of author”. Write like Hemingway, or Elmore Leonard, or Raymond Chandler, or whatever other white American man the speaker has in mind. (I’m sorry, but let’s be real here.) This is advice coming from the belief that there is, in the end, only one good and proper way to write. And that is simply not true—as anyone who has read with any variety and diversity at all will know.

***

This epic is titled “Writers: Stop Doing This”. What I want you to stop doing is sharing, listening to, and worrying about this garbage.

That doesn’t mean you don’t take advice or accept crit. It means that when you see a “don’t do X!” you ask yourself why, you think of counterexamples, you look at how X works in the sentence and if it is causing problems, and consider whether there is a clearer or more effective way to do it. In fact, write mindfully.

We can all, always improve as writers. But we won’t do that by following the advice of some jerk on the internet who tells you to cut all the adverbs.

_______________

KJ Charles is an editor of 20 years’ experience, a full-time author, and pretty much out of patience.

23 replies
  1. Charles Harris
    Charles Harris says:

    Hi KJ – Great article – and very much needed. You might add that some advice is biased by genre – not much use following Elmore Leonard’s 10 writing tips, for example, if you’re writing historical romance…

    Reply
  2. Ing
    Ing says:

    Bless this post, honestly! I can’t handle it when people present these rules that operate in absolutes like there aren’t a million examples to the contrary.

    The adverb thing has to especially grown root in the past couple of years as far as I’ve noticed. There was a book about editing that everyone read and after that everyone was running around panicking about adverbs.

    There were suddenly a bunch of posts about how terrible JK Rowling is as a writer because there are so many adverbs omg!

    Just. Absolutes are never a good idea. Strict rules are never a good idea especially not in artistic expressions. Who decides these rules? Who says that good writing is only this, this and this? Besides, the idea of what good writing is has constantly changed through periods of time and to pretend like we finally realised the universal writing truth that adverbs are bad and have now reached peak writing mode is silly! It might represent the peak of what we consider good writing right now but in 30 years we’ve probably changed our minds anyway.

    Reply
  3. Caz
    Caz says:

    You know, all this just consolidates things I’ve started to worry about with the way English is ‘taught’ in schools, because kids are pretty much being taught to “write by numbers” in primary schools. Yes, they’re taught a sentence needs a noun and a verb, they’re told what a clause is, they’re taught punctuation etc. etc. But when it comes to sentence construction, they’re almost given a sort of blueprint for it, and then once they’ve written their sentences, are told to “edit” their work, which basically means correct errors (if they’re able to see them) and then to try to “make your work more interesting” which basically means finding different, more “impactful” adjectives, or, as you’ve said (!) here, different ways to say “said”. So you end up with sentences full of “interesting” adjectives that meander forever. “The quick, brown, barking dog ran quickly down the dark, wet, scary road.” And the like.

    All I can remember of my English lessons in the 70s is this – my teacher said “go away, read books, see how things are laid out and then use that as a guideline” – because she knew I would read basically whatever I could get my hands on. But now so few kids actually read for pleasure (and for so many, it’s a chore), they aren’t getting that extra input, and teachers are resorting to trying to teach them a formula for “how to write”. And those first generation learners of this “formula” are now of working age, and maybe some of them have somehow got into positions where they are able to dispense stupid advice like this.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, this is a real problem. Someone on Twitter said that her school gave kids a list of dialogue tags like uttered, murmured etc, told them to use it, and then marked “said” as wrong thereafter. Terrifyingly stupid.

      Reply
      • Avalon
        Avalon says:

        I was told this at school too. I remember one particular exam where we were told to replace all the “said” with other words. It was a whole page of dialogue. I swapped every single one, did not repeat myself and got top marks. And to this day I curse it, because I have a phobia of writing “s/he said”.

  4. Abigail Hilton
    Abigail Hilton says:

    When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher held an elaborate funeral for “the be verbs.” We actually took pieces of paper out onto the playground and buried them.

    I had some very stupid English teachers.

    Reply
  5. Paula
    Paula says:

    I was once told at a writing course that I should drop the prologue. I asked why, did the story not need it and they said prologues are pointless in any story

    Reply
  6. Alex
    Alex says:

    I once had a novella accepted by a publisher who told me to eliminate as many occurences of the word ‘was’ and ‘ing’ as possible. I was limited to one per page. Fortunately that anthology never came to pass and I got my rights back. That publisher immediately went on my “I’m never submitting to them again,” blacklist. A house style is one thing, but ripping functional parts off the language to the point where it no longer fully functions is another.

    Reply
  7. jaymountney
    jaymountney says:

    So far as I know, two things are responsible for this state of affairs.

    First of all, some American editors, who are not themselves writers, worship Strunk because he tells them what to do in a situation they can’t quite grasp – so they in turn impose the ‘rules’ on their writers who in their turn are frightened of rejection slips….

    The same thing – with an extra smattering of ‘English grammar should equate to Latin grammar’ – applies to Ofsted inspectors, many of whom are not English specialists. They tell English teachers (some of whom are writers, too) that their knowledge of the subject is poor, and then of course the teachers are terrified of low Ofsted grades/losing their jobs/the respect of their colleagues.

    Nobody dares to confront these purveyors of rubbish. But you have, here. Thank you, and congratulations! Maybe being a successful writer and a successful editor and a parent gives you both the confidence and the motivation?

    Reply
  8. Kensi
    Kensi says:

    Thank you! I would like to say I was horrified when I saw that agent’s advice to take out all adjectives and adverbs, but I’ve seen so much bad writing advice online (usually from lit agents) that it didn’t even shock me as much as it should have. The fact that these people are gatekeepers to the literary world goes a long way towards explaining why the quality of books have taken a nosedive in the past 30 years or so. And yes, unfortunately newbie writers absorb agent advice more than writers’ advice, because they think – rightly to a certain extent – that it is an agent’s tastes which will further their cause of getting published. Publishing houses have delegated editing to agents now – people who really should be doing nothing but negotiating contracts – and we’re all suffering as a result.

    Reply
  9. Roxana
    Roxana says:

    Loved this post. <3

    I have a story of my own to share. At one point, I was writing a story about a very drunk man who was waiting (naked) for his lover to come home, but when the door to the house was unlocked, he could hear her husband talking. So he (rather classically) hid under the bed. Now, the story being written from his POV, he started describing it to us somewhat like this, "Her bed was splendid, just tall enough not to be claustrophobic…" (it turns out quite soon that his lover's husband is there with the main character's wife, which causes a bit of a conundrum for the protagonist, as he can't exactly dart out naked from under the bed and berate them)

    So, anyway, I gave this to an editor and she told me that the bed cannot be "splendid", as it doesn't tell the reader anything about the bed, and I should have put in something like "tall", so we can imagine it better – one cannot use descriptions like "awesome/amazing/great/perfect/splendid/wonderful" in stories, because they don't tell the reader anything. And I said, "Well, but we get to hear what the drunk main character *thinks* about the bed, don't we?" Alas, no. That argument held no water.

    On an entirely unrelated note to the above story, I remember that in a Japanese literature course I had in uni, we were told that the Japanese believed there were "strong" words, which should be used sparingly since their effect is too great. I'm not sure if "strong" was the word used, but the point was something like that. I think it works for some stylistic choices, as well. If you use them well and not very often, they create an effect, but if you use them too often or in the wrong places, they're too much.

    Reply
  10. Erica
    Erica says:

    Nice article. I will definitely recommend it to everyone who posts in writers forums to ask whether they are “allowed” to ever tag dialog with anything other than said, or to ever use adjectives or adverbs, or to-be verbs, or passive voice, or “filters,” or “sticky” words (the latter is a new “never use” I ran across a while ago) and so on.

    One thing that also drives me bonkers is advice that assumes everyone is writing in a specific, and usually unstated, narrative viewpoint, or that everyone is shooting for a very formal voice or tone, or that everyone wants to write like Hemingway or Elmore Leonard or whomever else that particular person thinks is the best writer ever.

    Reply
  11. Dwane Knott
    Dwane Knott says:

    Thankfully I read this before getting far in editing my work-in-progress. Several of the “rules” were causing me concern because I was violating them in writing the story I want to tell. Concerned no longer

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] last bloggged about silly stylistic fads and Rules for Writers. These often arise from perfectly good editorial advice (don’t overuse passives) that get […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.