Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Guest Post From Author Rob Guthrie

Today I have a guest post from author and blogger Rob Guthrie! Buy his novels on Amazon here.

Five Ways To Make Your Manuscript Better RIGHT NOW (or: Death To Adverbs)

I was critiquing my own work the other day and I realized that for me there are these five things I do on a consistent basis that I always end up marking and changing later in revisions. (Unfortunately I also realized that several of these bad habits I'd been doing since I started writing---funny how we slip right back into our poor writing habits, isn't it?)

But then I started thinking about it and figured if these things are common mistakes and/or weak writing for me, there are probably others out there who do some of the same things and if I shared MY five weaknesses perhaps it would help another writer or two strengthen their prose. 

Here's what I suggest for a comparison. Save your piece under a different name (save it off somewhere with a "version two" or something in the title. DO NOT change the name of the existing document; open the original document and before you make any changes, select "Save As" and give it the new name. Make changes only to your newly-named document. This way if you decide the five rules haven't strengthened your prose, you can always go back to the original.

FYI: I've used the word "mistakes" in this blog and I probably shouldn't have. Few of them are grammatical mistakes in and of themselves. They are what I consider "style" mistakes; the kind of writing that makes pieces clumsy and inhibit flow and rhythm. It should also be noted that these are in absolutely no particular order; I'm putting them down as they come back to me.

1) Look for repeated words. What I mean by this is to look for words (any words) that you've used more than once within either the same paragraph or within one or two paragraphs of each other. The key here is that the words are not necessarily used incorrectly (in most cases they are not)---they are simply repeated too soon after using them the first time. I once read a manuscript by a writer who I swear used the words "space craft" something like 27 times in the first few pages (and twice in the same sentence more than a few times). All you normally have to do is come up with a different word that means the same thing. Like I said earlier, it's not that the word is incorrect (in my example above the writer didn't misuse "space craft" other than to OVERUSE it).

2) Go through your manuscript and every time you see an adverb following and word that denotes speech (said, yelled, murmured, whispered, shrieked, t0ld, etc.) and delete said adverb. Examples:

"Come over here now," she yelled loudly.

"But who do we tell next?" he whispered nervously.

"Just get in the car and shut your pie hole," he commanded angrily.

3) Go through your manuscript and in 98% of the places you use a word that denotes speech that is NOT "said", change them to "said" (yelled, murmured, whispered, shrieked, t0ld, etc.).

4) Shorten your dialogue. I don't mean write less dialogue, I mean when you write your dialogue, think about how you (and other people) speak in everyday life. People don't give speeches (unless they are literally giving a speech or a lecture). They don't speak in long, grammatically perfect sentences. They talk in fragments. Colloquialisms. They pause. One person's rhythm is different from another person's. Dialogue should flow naturally, like an actual conversation will.

5) Cut the length of your first draft by at least 40%. Most stories can be told somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 words. Somewhere along the line writers were told a novel had a certain length. That's like saying every car has a color, or every dish requires sage and oregano. Rare is the story that takes 100,000 words to be told. Forget the numbers game. Tell the story, but tell it concisely. Get to the point. You don't have to sprint, but neither should you crawl. Put this saying on your wall and live by it:

My book can always be shorter.
Number 5 is a really hard one; some people are convinced their novel needs to be 120,000 words. I promise you it doesn't, but I do understand that adhering to number 5 is really difficult for some people. So here's my challenge to you:
Do numbers 1 through 3. Just those for now. See if doing so doesn't make your manuscript a much crisper, infinitely sleeker, more professional ( less amateurish) read. Oh, and put this sign on your wall, just underneath the other one, and repeat it 100 times a day:

Adverbs will be the death of my writing.
Go on. Start saying it. And don't stop until you believe it.

Want to know what adverbs were invented to do? To TELL something. Your job as a writer is to show the story. You simply cannot show the story by peppering your manuscript with adverbs. You have to give them up. Lock them away somewhere and throw away the key.

I know. At first it's like giving up crack cocaine. (Fine, I've never tried crack cocaine, but I've seen what it does to people and if those people are willing to look the way they look and do what they have to do in order to do crack cocaine, it must really be awesome.)

In all seriousness, though: go after those adverbs without mercy. Kill them all if you have to. Your writing will be exponentially better.


  1. Great advice, Rob! I've heard of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10% (On Writing by Stephen King), but the 30-40% rule does make for an interesting challenge. I'm already at 90K in my manuscript, and I'll probably will end up around the 115-120K mark when I'm done. After editing I'm shooting for around 85K.

  2. Awesome advice. I will have to use this as a 'must-do' before submitting manuscript. I think my publishers/editors/proofers will be thankful.

  3. Good advice here. However, I think the blanket rule against adverbs is over-stated. If they didn't have a purpose they wouldn't have been invented. Sometimes it can be more elegant to tell than show.

  4. Such good points. Number five is the most telling. Many classic novels that still impact us today are much shorter than you'd think. For example, William Golding's 'The Lord Of The Flies' is a sparing 59,900, while George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is an astonishing 29,966 words.
    You're right, less can be more.

  5. Awesome advice. Totally agree with your post.