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Robert's Rules of Writing #31: Reduce Clutter

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Interestingly enough, Masello's attitude toward adjectives is more in line with the standard attitude toward adverbs.

Whereas in his previous rule Masello chooses not to condemn writers who go overboard with their adverbs, he does take a shot at writers who go overboard with their adjectives. In particular, he criticizes prose in which many adjectives are used to modify one noun. In fact, I can't resist quoting one of his comments here:

...And adjectives, like gang members, seldom ventured out alone. They went out in twos and threes, and God help us, fours, and piled up on any person, place or thing that got in their way. "Look! It's a noun -- let's get it!"

I like that image.

But I think I see where his perspective comes from. Even though we are constantly warned about the dangers of adverbs, the fact is that standard grammar usually only allows for one adverb at a time. If I wanted to pile on the adverbs, I would soon come to realize that the repetition of the "-ly" syllable was draining my sentence of its power.

Observe what I mean:

Overuse of adverbs: He stood proudly, defiantly, and forcefully.

Overuse of adjectives: The proud, defiant, forceful man stood.

In both cases, I'm using a lot of commas, but to my ears the first sentence feels more intuitively wrong than the second.

But the second sentence isn't such a hot one, either, which I think is Masello's point. We've become so careful of watching out for overuse of adverbs that we forget to be sparing of our adjectives as well.


And, simply BECAUSE the first sentence sounds more awkward, it sounds more powerful -- you'd figure that the author was doing it deliberately, and the awkwardness of the sentence kind of manages to convey an idea of awkwardness to the subject of the sentence.

"He stood proudly, defiantly, and forcefully." -- I imagine a kid, or someone developmentally disabled, or someone totally outclassed, someone awkward, and with no real power, trying to make a stand on guts alone. The awkwardness of the sentence kind of implies a proud hopelessness of the stance.

I mean, I LIKE that sentence -- simply because the overuse of the adverbs is SO obvious that it feels like it means something.

But I think it'd get old REAL fast.
I see what you mean. Think of the scene in the Matrix where Morpheus stands up after being unsuccessfully brain drained. "Get up Morpheus! Get Up!" Neo whispers, and Morpheus stands up only through great effort. For that scene you could write "He stood defiantly, forcefully, and proudly" and get away with it. I rearranged the order, by the way :)


Ah, but that same sentence can be tweaked just slightly to increase its impact even more:

"He stood proudly. Defiantly. Forcefully."

See the buildup there? Swapping the commas for periods changes the entire balance of the sentence, and gives those adverbs a power they didn't boast before.

--Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Eh -- that seems way too . . . um . . . 16-years-old-and-way-too-proud-of-your-own-gothy-poetry to me. It totally changes the balance of the sentence, yes, I agree -- but not for the better. It just looks Eye-of-Argonish, rather than deliberately showing awkwardness.


Well, it all comes down to how it's used, dunnit? Page after page of that kind of breathless drama would indeed invoke the dreaded Eye of Argon. But I can see how it could be effective (if used judiciously).

--Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Years ago, at a Readercon, I went to one-man panel held by the late Joe Mayhew. He told us about a story he'd written for a chess magazine. This magazine published almsot no fiction, and when it did, it had strict size limits. His story was too long, but they'd take if he'd cut it down.

So he did. Along the way, he'd excised every adverb and adjective. When he was finished, it was much shorter, but still too long. They took it anyway.

He said it was the tightest story he'd ever published.

Since then, I've thought about each modifier before using it.
I seem to recall a story of Joe Straczynski's. When he was young, he got Rod Serling to comment on one of his stories. The advice: "One, don't ever let them stop you from telling the stories you want to tell; two, cut every third adjective."

Not quite off-topic, but John Rogers has a whole pile of interesting discussion about writing screenplays, here:
This does look interesting. Thanks!

December 2016

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