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.
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.
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