There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.
At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason).
For now, learn your craft.
Probably the most common “rookie mistake” is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear.
An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:
‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’
There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume.
I would pare the sentence to the following: ‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’
I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.
A note on adverbs:
Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.
Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.
November 3rd, 2011 at 14:11
Nicely said. I can use this with my students since your examples are excellent. Thanks!
November 3rd, 2011 at 14:48
Thanks for the great advice!
November 3rd, 2011 at 15:18
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November 3rd, 2011 at 17:27
I’d put it another way on adverbs. If you have used an adverb, check the word it’s modifying. Could you use a verb which incorporates the meaning of the adverb? A more exact adjective? If so, then the adverb can be removed and the word it modifies changed.
November 3rd, 2011 at 21:07
A clear and concise reminder, thanks…just saying
November 4th, 2011 at 16:56
In writing groups this is often the most glaring mistake new writers make. Thank you for the reminder to all of us.
November 4th, 2011 at 22:29
Oh, I’m a terrible adjective user! I know it…and I’m trying to improve. Thank you so much for a clear and concise lesson. I just popped by your site because you subscribed to mine. I’ll be dropping by as often as possible now!
November 5th, 2011 at 15:47
Great post! My own forays into creative writing have found me in those very same traps you spoke of. It was an excellent reminder to not embellish to the point of tedium – because, let’s face it, sometimes those bloated sentences are fun to write! 😛