Writing

Six Wordcraft Questions Writers Fight Over

fists smash into a computer keyboard, scattering keys
This may come as a shock, but writers don’t always agree. When these disagreements are on the technical minutiae of wordcraft, it can be especially confusing to newcomers. Most newcomers just want to write respectable prose. So, how can you tell what that is when everyone’s fighting over it? Let’s look at six questions, and I’ll give you what I think are safe answers.

1. Should We Use “-ly” Adverbs?

While we haven’t discussed it much on Mythcreants, adverbs that end in “-ly” are among the most hated words in writing. Some well-known writers have sworn them off altogether. That’s because these adverbs are all too often used to compensate for poor word choices. Let’s look at a couple examples.

Below, “quickly” is used to specify how the character is walking. But it would be better to use a verb that’s more specific.

Bad: She walked quickly into the office.

Good: She hurried into the office.

Other times, adverbs are used to tell instead of show. Taking them out can force writers to convey the information with more description.

Bad: “I guess so,” he said sadly.

Good: “I guess so.” His lip trembled.

If the wording is expressive enough without the adverb, then the adverb is repetitive and should be removed.

They crept sneakily into the graveyard.

While watching out for “-ly” adverbs can help you strengthen your wordcraft, most people think banning them is going a little far. The English language is full of interesting words, and sometimes an adverb ending in “-ly” will express an idea better than anything else.

2. Should Thoughts Be Italicized?

Some writers suggest italicization is an old habit that should go the way of the dinosaurs. Others italicize thoughts whenever they can find them. What’s going on here?

First, it’s useful to know what these italics are for. They make thoughts pop out from the surrounding text. This signals a change to the reader, just like paragraph breaks mark a change in topic and double quotation marks signal a transition from narration to dialogue.

Knowing that, you won’t want to signal a change in narration unless there’s actually a change. Depending on the narrative style you’re using, there may be little difference between the narration and a character’s thoughts. Let’s look at three examples.

That smile told me that I was just the employee and I had to do what he wanted. If I complained, he’d give me extra cleaning. Asshole.

Above, we’re in close perspective. The whole paragraph is basically the character’s thoughts, so it doesn’t feel any different when the narrator just says “Asshole.” No italics are needed.

As she strolled down the grocery aisle and wondered where they’d moved the garbage bags to, she felt a pain in her back. Ouch.

This one is in distant third. The narrator tells us the character is wondering and feeling things as though we’re watching her from the outside. The “Ouch” doesn’t fit this outside perspective. The thought would be better in italics, though making the narration less distant would also solve this problem.

Damien stared at the ship for a moment. I can’t believe she paid for this wreck.

In this last one, the paragraph suddenly shifts from third person to first person and from past tense to present. This transition could be very jarring without italics.

Within this gradient, writers and editors will make subjective calls about whether thoughts stand out enough to be italicized. They’ll also try to use italics consistently throughout a work. While some people may impose italics everywhere or swear them off altogether, most are in between.

3. Should We Avoid “Clichés”?

Outside of specific contexts, a cliché is anything that’s so overused it elicits eye rolling. It could be a trope, a character archetype, or a plot device. However, in discussions of wordcraft, a “cliché” often means something specific: an idiom. An idiom is a phrase with its own definition, much like a word. Idioms are made of words, of course, but you can’t necessarily figure out what they mean just by knowing the words.

These are all idioms:

  • Rob the cradle
  • Cut to the chase
  • Hit it off

Every language has idioms. Many started as creative metaphorical expressions, and then they grew popular enough to become embedded in our language. In many writing circles, these idioms are labeled as cliché en mass and derided as being lazy and uncreative.

You can probably tell from how I’m saying this that I do not agree. In fact, I wrote a whole post back in the day satirizing this viewpoint. However, I’m probably an outlier in this debate, and even I know that idioms are good at some things and not others.

What they are good at is communicating ideas. Some idioms such “a fine line between…” represent concepts that are otherwise difficult to express. But they are not creative, novel, or deep, and they shouldn’t be used as though they are. For instance, take this excerpt from the terribly written Handbook for Mortals.

Isn’t it true we always want what we can’t have? The grass is always greener, so to speak. Of course, if you really checked out the other side, you’d probably find out that the grass is Astroturf—fake and brittle and lifeless. It sure is pretty from your side of the fence, though.

The author’s rambling on about “the grass is always greener” like the phrase is philosophical, but it’s just the opposite. Idioms are mundane, and therefore they’re a bad match for poetry, literary fiction, or any other form of fiction that prioritizes novel wordcraft. Whether to use them in speculative fiction is more of a judgment call, but putting them in your narration could cause some people to look down on your prose. You’ll find more leeway in using idioms in dialogue or when your narration has a strong character voice. Like sentence fragments, idioms can make speech feel more natural.

I should also mention that not all phrases labeled as cliché are idioms. “A dark and stormy night” is not an idiom because it has no special meaning. There’s no reason to use it unless you are making a deliberate allusion to the trope.

4. Which Verbs Should Go in Dialogue Tags?

Dialogue isn’t like regular narration. It has a habit of breaking writing rules, and that creates disagreements. One of the most noticeable disagreements is how to attribute dialogue to characters. The bit of narration that does this is called a dialogue tag, and there are two main camps.

The first camp treats dialogue tags much like the rest of the narration. They feel using “said” every time is repetitive and uncreative, and they opt to use more stand-out verbs like “whined,” “cooed,” or “trumpeted.” Some writers feel this adds a lot of flavor to their narration.

The second camp treats dialogue tags like punctuation, and they feel that “said” should be used most of the time. The idea is that dialogue tags should be invisible, and using 100 synonyms for “said” distracts readers. In addition, these creative verbs usually tell rather than show the tone of the line. Instead, this second camp advocates showing tone through the words in the dialogue and/or the body language of characters.

Currently, the second camp seems to outnumber the first by a significant margin. Unless you are already a successful writer or your prose is outstanding, using creative verbs will probably cause people to look down on your work.

However, one best practice will help you stay on the good side of both camps: minimize dialogue tags. Attribute dialogue only where it’s needed for clarity, and consider putting a character action next to the line instead of a standard tag. Just don’t try to eliminate tags altogether.

5. When Should We Use Unusual Viewpoints?

Huge portions of books on fiction writing are spent discussing point of view. Within that, you can expect the finer points of first person and third-person limited in past tense to be well covered. However, whether writers should use anything else can be the subject of fierce debate.

People often have negative reactions to narration styles they aren’t used to. Which styles feel strange varies from person to person, giving many people strong opinions that may not match common wisdom. I’ve even met someone who considers present to be the default tense and thinks that third person in past tense – the industry default – is weird.

How safe it is to experiment depends on the point of view under discussion. First, let’s talk about omniscient. I’ve heard writers dismiss omniscient as outdated, but never speculative fiction writers. Science fiction and fantasy have a robust tradition of omniscient narration, with many of our greatest works written in this perspective. However, new speculative fiction writers often write in omniscient when third-person limited is a much better match for their story and skill level. I recommend writing your first novel in a less distant viewpoint.

Writing in present tense is more unusual than past tense, but it’s still respectable, and it will even help you keep your wording concise. However, some readers could still be put off by it, particularly if it’s paired with third person. Consider writing some passages in both tenses and asking beta readers which they prefer.

Really niche perspectives like second person or future tense are at higher risk of alienating readers. It’s safer to test them out at short story length, so the novelty of the perspective doesn’t have time to wear off, and so you don’t risk your entire novel being rejected because of the narration.

Generally, the more unusual the narration style, the stronger your justification should be for using it. Ask yourself why this perspective is the best fit for the story you are telling. If it could be told just as well in a perspective everyone is used to, you’d be better off doing that.

6. Can Sentences Start With a Conjunction?

Traditionally, conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” were only for joining multiple clauses of a sentences together. Starting a sentence with one would make a sentence incomplete and be grammatically incorrect.

However, writers have a strong incentive to use conjunctions not only to join sentences but also to act as transitions. Transitions like “in addition” or “however” describe the relationship an idea has to the previous statement. But conjunctions also indicate these relationships – and they do it with just one syllable. Since writing comes across stronger when it’s concise, it’s hard for standard transitions to compete.

You might have noticed we use conjunctions this way at Mythcreants, so clearly I approve. However, Mythcreants is a blog with a casual tone. If you want your writing to sound formal or academic, limit conjunctions to the middle of sentences.

Of all the people you encounter, editors are the most likely to object to using conjunctions as a transition. They know exactly what conjunctions and transitions are, and unlike most readers, they’ll notice how you are using them. While editors have been warming up to the idea of using conjunctions this way, some might still object. If you at least avoid using conjunctions to start a whole paragraph, you’ll probably get fewer complaints.

I have yet to encounter a regular reader that’s bothered by using conjunctions to start sentences, so I’d say that overall it’s a safe practice.


Despite a surplus of strong opinions, most of these questions are a matter of convention, not factual accuracy. Think over the issue and decide for yourself what’s right. Then when someone disagrees with your choices, you’ll be ready for a debate.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I write close third person past tense most of the time (there are a few things I’ve written in first person past tense, but those were supposed to be reminiscent of Watson’s writing, because my character takes a similar role). When I add direct thoughts, I use italics, simply for better distinguishing them from regular text. I find it jarring myself when I read a text with direct thoughts and they are not set apart in a way. When I paraphrase thoughts, I don’t, then they’re just text like the rest.

    When I was still in school, my German teacher (I’m German, so she was the equivalent to an English-speaking person’s English teacher) stated that we should avoid ‘said’ at all costs and I spent a lot of time trying to follow that advice. Later on, however, I realized that there are cases when you have several people speaking and need a simple way of stating who is saying what – and then a ‘said’ here and there can be useful. I use different verbs when I want to convey emotions with them, too (I know that the spoken sentence should convey emotions already, but there are sentences which are neutral and need a bit of reinforcements in my opinion). Most of the time I try to add some short description like ‘he frowned’ instead, putting a bit of action into the dialogue.

    I’m guilty of the -ly adverbs, though. Quite often, I use them for quick writing and since I’m writing a lot of pulpish material, I guess I do get away with it.

    The other two things aren’t really a topic for me when it comes to writing. I don’t use a lot of idioms – mostly in dialogue and spoken text, to me, has a different set of rules than the actual written part of the story. The same goes for using conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. I use them in the written part every now and then, too, but most often in dialogue again, where I feel they’re not that much of a problem, because humans tend to talk that way.

    Out of curiosity, I’ve done my best to avoid those -ly adverbs here, which was hard, but not too hard. Perhaps I should keep an eye on it and try my best to wean myself off them – at least a bit.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I don’t know how it works in German, but in English it strikes me as really strange to avoid “said” at all costs. True, some authors over use “said” as a dialogue tag, but it’s a vital tool and avoiding it at all costs seems like a bad road.

      • Cay Reet

        Well, German has other words to use instead of ‘sagte’ (‘said’ in German) as well, of course. You can avoid it, but it’s more tiresome than using it every now and then and being carful with dialogue tags overall. I think today that my teacher was a little on the overzealous side.

  2. Michael Campbell

    “They crept sneakily into the graveyard.”
    Actually that’s the kind of pandemonious hyperbole that made Stan Lee’s career.

    Also you can change the meaning when you get rid of “ly” words.
    “Bad: She walked quickly into the office.
    Good: She hurried into the office.”
    No. Bad.
    She hurried into the office could mean she drove her car from her home to the office instead of catching the bus.
    “Walked quickly” carries a different meaning…indeed it carries a different meaning to “ran” or “sprinted”. Because walking is a different sport at the Olympics to the running sports.
    “Hurried” could even mean she was using the stroke, the Americans call “the Australian crawl” on account of the office building’s level being flooded with seawater.

    Also:-
    “Bad: “I guess so,” he said sadly.
    Good: “I guess so.” His lip trembled.”
    So maybe he was sad. But maybe he had a nervous tick and was afraid. Perhaps even, the guy had an epileptic episode. The getting rid of the “ly” word has actually made the meaning less clear.
    It’s easy to lose specificity when you ostracize “ly” words.

    Italicized thoughts?
    If it’s a soliloquy, sure.
    But frequently you should tag it as though it were “stated” in a comic book’s thought bubble instead of a speech bubble.

    Damien stared at the ship for a moment. “I can’t believe she paid both our life-savings for this wreck”; he thought but remained tight lipped.

    • Deus Ex Anthropos

      Your critique of the sentence “She hurried into the office” would be correct if it were “She hurried *to* the office.” Cay’s use of the word *into* suggests that the character was immediately outside of the office and is now physically walking into it, just as in the original (flawed) formulation.

      • Cay Reet

        Thank you, but Chris made the example.

      • SunlessNick

        Although I confess I *am* now stuck with the image of a flooded building that everyone’s swimming around while otherwise having a completely normal workday.

        • Michael Campbell

          Yeah. You don’t have to be Michael Phelps to know that you can both hurry and swim.

      • Michael Campbell

        Can you show me a link to an online dictionary that states that into implies human scale proximity?

        The asteroid plummeted from the Khyber belt and smashed into the rusty Chrysler’s brake-light.

        I can’t see any requirement that “into” implies proximity of origin.

        • Greg

          There’s a difference between hurrying TO the office and hurrying INTO the office. The context is pretty obvious.

  3. Tifa

    Thanks to this lovely site, I’ve been working hard at reducing the number of invented words in my books by a hundredfold [my new series barely has any! Hooray!], and avoiding -ly, and making dialogue speak for itself, so to speak.
    My big task before next month [National Novel Writing Month!] is to go through my first series sentence by sentence, with all of the above in mind, and edit it thoroughly, and reconnect it to my new series. It’s daunting, to say the least, but I’m going to do my best, as always.
    I’ve dived into omniscient for the first book of my new series, and I don’t think I’m going back to third-limited anytime soon. It makes me wonder how I ever wrote without it. That being said, I have to take extra care to make sure I’m writing it ‘right’.

  4. Josh Foreman

    I see these kinds of fad rules in the visual art world as well. It happens when people of middling talent hear a suggestion and they have a small epiphany and begin to evangelize it, citing it as a maxim. Enough middling talent artists spouting the same thing and it reaches a critical threshold at which it becomes ‘common knowledge’ or ‘best practice’.

    The TRUE part about these kinds of fads is that they point to trade offs. The more you do X, the more it will bend your work towards a particular style or demographic. Being a mature artist means understanding all these influences and using or abstaining from them with intention, knowing the outcome of doing so.

    (For the record, I’m a middling artist myself. I just have 22 years of professional experience doing it, so I’ve seen the process play out multiple times.)

    • Michael Campbell

      Which visual medium specifically?
      http://www.maddfilms.com/
      There’s always value in knowing a good visual artist. If not for concept art then for story-boarding.

      • Josh Foreman

        My YouTube channel’s probably the best summation of what I do.
        https://www.youtube.com/scrybe

        Let me know if you need any After Effects or Premier work. My son has been getting into it and is looking for work.

    • Michael Campbell

      “It happens when people of middling talent hear a suggestion and they have a small epiphany and begin to evangelize it, citing it as a maxim.”
      “Disdain much?” Maybe:- “Your snobbery is showing”.

      For what it’s worth, your oozing of contempt was fun.

      “Begin by learning to draw and paint like the old masters. After that, you can do as you like; everyone will respect you.”
      ― Salvador Dalí

      • Josh Foreman

        Well if my contempt was oozing then it got on myself as well. I did note that I myself am a middling artist and I’ve fell victim to binary thinking of purported rules many times.

  5. Robin Alexis

    I’m glad somebody else has the same opinion as me about idioms. I think they are quite useful in spec fic, provided they make sense in your world. In a strange world I think they act as a bridge between the reader’s world and the writer’s. It’s much more direct than taking the scenic route.

  6. SunlessNick

    I tend to find myself using “-ly’s” for dialogue when it refers to the physical quality of the voice – for instance quietly or shakily – rather than trying to tell the emotion behind it.

  7. Michael Campbell

    “Said” is one of those words that really deserves its own key on the computer keyboard, much like “and” or “the”.

    You can use; “also”, “additionally”, “as well” or even “plus”. But no one is going to demand a new rule of grammar exterminating “and” as boring and repetitive.

    It could be worse. In Hebrew “aleph” means; “a”, “and”, “but”, “therefore”, “because”, “so”, “also”, “it follows”, “because” and the number 1.

    • Bunny

      Yikes! That sounds like an extremely intimidating language to learn. I think I heard somewhere that there’s a language in which there’s no real sentence structure – everything’s just thrown into it like a salad, all jumbled. I want to say it’s some Middle Eastern language, but maybe that’s wrong. If anyone knows what this language is or whether it even exists, please let me know!

      • Michael Campbell

        I think you might be thinking of Chinese.
        Because it’s a written language only, with many different spoken dialects…and it was created by the first Ming emperor for the sole purpose of controlling his empire:- it finishes up like a shopping list.
        Great Wall.
        Breach.
        Mongols.
        Two thousand infantry.
        Now.

        You get the picture. No syntax needed.

        But sometimes you need to read through several times to get the picture.
        Dog.
        Bite.
        Man.
        You’re not really sure until your read the next sentence.
        If it’s “ambulance” or if it’s “veterinarian” will give you clues at to what was meant by the first part.

        • Greg

          Which is why my Chinese wife snickers when she sees people with Chinese characters tattoos that clearly don’t know how the language works.

          Oops, I started a sentence with a preposition. My bad.

          • Michael Campbell

            Well you’ld know more than me, in that particular field.
            I just had one conversation with a guy, after a Heat & Fluids class.

      • Michael Campbell

        Also Hebrew has no word for sons IIRC. Only daughters and children. So it’s never really clear. If “so and so, had five children and three daughters”, does that mean five sons or only two sons?

  8. Jonny Wilson

    Could you give an example of a positive use of a -ly adverb? SunlessNick’s is a pretty good niche application, are there any others?

    As far as goes perspective, it’s really interesting looking at this from the perspective of someone who’s never written stories outside of English class but has gotten their experience in writing from forum roleplays.
    In the communities I’ve been in, it’s extremely, extremely rare to see any player write in anything but third-person limited past tense. Dream sequences and the like are sometimes present tense, and the game masters often third-omniscient, but those are the only particularly common exceptions I’ve seen.
    First-person, for me and a lot of those I’ve written with, feels a bit too much like the player writing has main character syndrome. Whilst I’m probably biased, I think I’ve been right to feel that more often than not – not that I’d ever assume that someone using first person would be like that out of hand.
    An omniscient viewpoint isn’t really practical for players unless they power play (taking more control of the story/other characters than is acceptable).
    Second-person feels really jarring for almost everything. The only way I’ve seen it work is when the GM tells you about something happening to the character, which lets you feel a lot closer to them without the GM using first person, which would feel wrong.
    Future tense, outside of very specific scenarios (e.g. a character being told a prophecy), just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  9. Michael Campbell

    Suddenly!?!
    For some reason people treat “suddenly” like its not an adverb because we’ve lost the verb in the distant mists of time.

    To me all the “ly” words are good for adding colour to the story.
    Cautiously. Wisely. Sensibly. Silently. Unconsciously. Subconsciously. Conscientiously. Consequently. Calmly. Maliciously. Sagely. Unearthly. Unholy.
    They’re all great words. Avoiding them is a fad-like phenomenon…and also, poorly conveying a concept. Some people use “sadly” and “happily” too often…in high school…and their teacher tells them to stop doing it…and the message gets passed on as stop all adverbs, not stop those two dull & uninspired cliches.

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