Friday, February 1, 2013

KISS Your Manuscript

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

Call me ignorant, but I never knew the rule about not modifying the verb "said" with an adverb belonged to Elmore Leonard. To me, it's simply good writing.

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I belonged to a small writer's group. I only lasted two sessions.  I didn't quit in a huff, wounded and angry over their comments. I quit because I thought they didn't know squat about writing or grammar. The women in this small group insisted that "said" should be used as little as possible, if at all, and that you should never use a word ending with "ly." Ever.  They prided themselves on having chapter after chapter of dialogue without the lowly verb "said."

By the way, to this day, I'm the only published author to ever have been associated with those wannabe scribes. I'm not telling you this as a way of saying neener, neener, neener. No. I'm not. But to show how a bit of good advice can be hijacked and mutated, resulting in the real star of the show - the story - being lost, possibly along with a writing career.  Somewhere along the line, one or more people in that group of well meaning ladies heard that "said" is over used and that adverbs are a no-no when modifying verbs. From there they went ninja, banning the hard working "said" from their work, resulting in overwrought and manipulated verb usage when "said" would not only have sufficed, but would have been the best, clean choice.

As for banning words with "ly" at the end, this is also another example of hearing one simple rule and clinging to it with the fervor of a new proselyte. Maybe by throwing out all such words, they felt secure that they would not accidentally use an adverb to modify a verb. But isn't that throwing out the baby with the bathwater? If we all did that, how would Rhett Butler have ever uttered his most famous line: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." 

In a nutshell, sometimes rules are good and sometimes they get in the way of progress, especially when they go from simple to exaggerated or are elevated to cult status. So if you're going to stick to the rules, stick to the rules as intended in their purest form, not some garbled version handed down via the telephone game (remember playing that as a kid?).

Most of us have had a good basic education when it comes to grammar and sentence construction. Most of us know what looks good, sounds good, feels good when it comes to the written word. In doubt about how something sounds? Read it out loud to yourself several times.  Or have someone else read it to you. Your ear may catch what your eyes do not. If it sounds awkward, it probably is and should be edited.

The first and foremost Sue Ann Jaffarian rule of writing can be remembered by this acronym: KISS.  Translated, it means keep it simple, sweetheart also known as keep it simple, stupid. Look at the work of some of your favorite writers. I'll best most have done just that.  Don't over think the process. Focus on good basic grammar and let the story live free.


Reece said...

Words of wisdom, Sue Ann. I especially agree with you on the benefits of reading your work aloud.

L.J. Sellers said...

I'm with you. There are no hard rules to writing, and not everyone even agrees on basic principles. And writers' groups can sometimes do more harm than good.