What not to write*

‘And as I sat there brooding on the world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could not fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that obscurity beyond the city, where the fields of the republic rolled on under the night.  

Gatsby believed in the light, the future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back into the past.’

These are the final sentences of The Great Gatsby, shorn of all adverbs and adjectives, other than those required for comprehension. It may not have quite the richness of the unexpurgated version, but it’s still pretty damned good, isn’t it? One reason for that is that Scott Fitzgerald seldom used adverbs, and used adjectives only when they made an essential contribution to the text, so in fact little has needed to be cut.

One distinguished novelist – I think it was Evelyn Waugh – declared that it was his ambition to write a novel that contained not a single adverb or adjective. That’s carrying things a bit far, but the principle is sound. Let’s just say that adverbs and adjectives should be kept to a minimum.

The first time Waugh’s remark proved its wisdom to me was when I was working with Francis Pym on his 1984 book The Politics of Consent. We were going through endless drafts and rewrites, each typed afresh by Francis’s secretary, and I was wanting to make yet more stylistic changes. I was planning to get my first computer anyway, so I told Francis of my intention to get one immediately, to put the book on to it, and to edit it there.

Francis was very worried by this idea. He was extremely concerned that the book would be entirely lost in the ether, and that months of enormously hard work would be utterly wasted. Computers were completely beyond his frame of reference (and mine, it must be said), and what I was proposing was a totally unacceptable risk.

But I pressed ahead with the plan. The first casualties were the adverbs. I noticed that as soon as you used the word ‘very’, the next time you needed emphasis you had to say ‘completely’, or something similar, until you built up an unwieldy edifice of ugly words ending in ‘-ly’, which contributed nothing to the meaning and cluttered up every paragraph. I was amazed to discover that, if you removed the first ‘very’, the rest of the adverbs became redundant, and the whole rickety structure came clattering down.

So the paragraph before last should now read: ‘Francis was worried by this idea. He was concerned that the book would be lost in the ether, and that months of hard work would be wasted. Computers were beyond his frame of reference (and mine, it must be said), and what I was proposing was an unacceptable risk.’

For some reason, almost every novel I write contains particular words or phrases that recur too often. They are different words and phrases for each novel. I usually don’t notice them until the novel is finished and I am reading it through, over and over again. I then start making a list of the offending verbiage.

What did writers do before computers, before the search function? Now, once I have identified the words and phrases that irritate me, I can easily find each instance of them, and review them one by one. Writers now have no excuse not to address stylistic issues like this.

Apart from redundant adverbs and adjectives, I don’t have many bêtes noires about writing. In fact, probably the only other one is how dialogue is reported.

Consider the sentence: ‘Yes,’ he said.

The least important word in that sentence is ‘said’. It is pointless, because the speech marks round ‘yes’ tell you it was said. It is there only as a means of introducing the word ‘he’. And the word ‘he’ needs to be introduced only because the writer fears that – in a long piece of dialogue – the reader may lose track of who is speaking. No other reason. If that concern didn’t exist, the sentence would read: ‘Yes.’

Because ‘said’ is irrelevant, it is essential not to draw attention to it. ‘Yes,’ he exclaimed; ‘yes,’ he declared; ‘yes,’ he anything-elsed are anathema to me. ‘Asked’ can be all right, and is nearly as neutral as ‘said’. Occasionally another verb, if necessary for exceptional emphasis. But otherwise, just use ‘said’. And if you think it looks a little plain and you want to start qualifying it with an adverb, aarghhhhhh.

I have to say that my distinguished editor at Picador, Ravi Mirchandani, does not share all these prejudices. He quite likes adverbs. In fact, he went through the manuscript of Trading Futures, putting back some of the ones I had so carefully removed. We ended up with a sort of compromise, but I fear other arguments may lurk in the future, because at heart I share Evelyn Waugh’s ambition to write a novel without them.

In the end, the greatest compliment you can pay a novelist is not to notice the writing. You should be absorbed by the story and by the characters, and by nothing else. High-flown prose is a distraction. So is anything else that draws unwanted attention to itself. You will always notice if a novel is badly written, because it will be full of words and phrases that leap out at you from the page and fart in your face.

‘Was it well-written?’

‘Yes, I suppose so. I didn’t really notice. But I do know I enjoyed it.’


* Title © Kay Powell. Please visit What Not to Write and buy her book.