Crossing the Equator 3: Why “she said” is divine, and about adverbs.

[W]hile to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine. — Stephen King in On Writing.

In writing, one can fall for guidelines-cum-misrules that novices over-learn. “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.” “Don’t use contractions.” “Don’t split an infinitive”. All of these rules should be learned (there are reasons why they exist) and then broken skillfully.

To start, English isn’t Latin, so one can split infinitives. Sometimes it works. And there’s no reason you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction, because ideas are allowed to cross sentence boundaries. (If they don’t, your sentences are too long.) As for prepositional endings, that’s also fine: she put her clothes on. Contractions? Please. Shakespeare used contractions. They’re beautiful.

Repeated words are sometimes offensive. Here’s a bad example, unless the repetition benefits a context (let’s assume that it doesn’t).

The night was dark. She didn’t like running in the dark. If she wore dark clothes, she couldn’t be seen in the dark, because it was too dark.

It sounds bad. It’s repetitive. Also, though, it’s bad writing even in spite of its repetition. The first question is: do we want to accentuate dark? Maybe. That’s contextual, of course. Who’s the character and what is she afraid of? Yet if we had four great synonyms for dark, though, it’d be bad writing for its fluff. If no context gives us a benefit from the overuse of dark, it can be improved.

It was night– too dark for running. It was dangerous to be out along the road without bright clothes, which she didn’t have.

That said, there are repeated words that work great. They can bring in parallelism.

She wanted to see him because she was horny. She wanted to see him because he was sweet. She wanted to see him because… she was falling in love.

It makes it clear: she wanted to see him. Imagine this rewritten without parallelism.

She wanted to see him because she was horny, he was sweet, and she was falling in love.

It doesn’t work as well. Not even close. It reads like a business document. You can almost see the bullets popping out on a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why She Wanted To See Him”.

One of the worst things that people do, to avoid repeated words, is replace “said” with synonyms. “He exclaimed.” “She blurted out.” “He screamed.” “She spoke angrily.” It injects melodrama and it fails in an important literary dimension: proportion. Here’s the thing about the boring, worn-out old “said”. It’s almost invisible. That’s what we want. The reader should be able to focus on what is being said and who is saying it. How it is said should be obvious from the context. You want the reader to forget that he’s reading words (“exclaimed”) and to focus on the action.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are times in my writing that I’ll use “said, with a smile” or “asked” or “yelled”. Battle scenes have a lot of yelling. “Asked” is almost as invisible as “said”, redundant thanks to the question mark. For a question, to ask is the lowest-entropy verb instead of to say.

“Did you have anything,” Farisa asked, “to do with that [spoiler]?”

There’s something information-theoretic here. As writers, we often think a lot about word count. Farisa’s Courage stands (as I write this) at 123,306 words and it will become much easier to get published if I can cut 3,307 of those. That’s about 13 minutes of reader time. To be fair, time matters. A difference in efficiency can make the difference between a page turner and an “okay read”. One can go too far with cutting and it’s most important to get the word count right. (For Farisa’s Courage, the right word count is somewhere around 118-121k, I feel. I’m close to it. Early drafts are typically 10-30 percent over.) My point is only that a small difference in efficiency can have a major effect on reader enjoyment.

That said, not all words are created equal. I can write 10-word sentences that are impossible to parse. In fact, I can arguably write an 8-word sentence using one word (guess which) as each of the 8 parts of speech (as-preposition and as-conjunction require a little stretching). It’s nearly unreadable but translates, approximately, to “I say with expletive emphasis not to cheat this unlikable person in business, nor have sex with him.” What we actually care about is entropy. How much information are we shoving down the reader’s eye-gullet (and, much more importantly, what is the payoff ratio)?

Entropy is why we care about grammar and spelling. Grammatical mistakes shove extra bits of information through that don’t do any good. There are two spellings for the word “color”/”colour”. If you’re consistent, then it’s an upfront cost of 1 bit per book and it doesn’t matter. Use either, it’s fine. If you’re using them interchangeably, and then you’re costing the reader 1 bit per usage. That adds up! The reader might question, is there a thematic reason why the spelling keeps changing? Am I missing something? You’ll always get the benefit of the doubt on the rare error– the reader will, at first, presume you competent and try to guess what you meant– but you don’t want to generate too much extra work like this.

The general assumption is that readers spend 240 milliseconds per word. I’d guess that a more accurate model is based on time-per-entropy, somewhere around 40-50 bits per second. (I make no claims about human consciousness bandwidth– only reading speed.) Speed readers clear more words but probably don’t take in more information. Grammar matters not because of our English teacher superegos, but because the reader deserves to get the most out of those bits and seconds. If you use “said” (and, for questions, “asked”) as a matter of principle, you’re making your how-of-dialogue channel thin (nearly zero bits) and that’s a service, because it draws attention to who and what is being said.

Perfect writing doesn’t stop at wasting no words, but wastes no bits. It’s telepathic. That said, in the real world, we have to settle for great writing that wastes as few as possible.

Repetition focuses attention. Writing is nonlinear. Just as 20-word sentences are more than twice as complex as 10-word sentences, repetition amplifies non-linearly. In the “dark” negative example, we’re amplifying the word dark, but we’re not getting anything for it. We already know that night is dark! With dialogue, we don’t get the same problem with said, because it establishes a low-entropy channel: 95+ percent of the time, the verb will be to say in past tense. It can be ignored, if one likes. We’re not worried about emphasizing to say because that’s what dialogue is: saying things.

What about adverbs? Grammatically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. In fact, all good writers use them sometimes. I just did (“sometimes”). One of the most important adverbs is not. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It could be buffed for modern usage as “Do not commit adultery.” There’s no simpler way to say it, though. “Refrain from committing adultery” both introduces a larger (higher-entropy) verb (refrain versus do) and summons the gerund “committing”. You’re introducing abstraction, and costing more bits, but you’re not communicating anything more.

Not is a great adverb. It costs about 1 bit and it negates whatever verb or adjective you want. That’s beautiful.

So what’s wrong with adverbs? Nothing, but they’re tricky. We have the same problem with prepositions. To piss off and to piss on differ in ways that have little to do with the on/off antonym pair. The former is idiomatic and has nothing to do with “piss” or “off”. To fuck down is to lower ones sexual standards. To fuck up is to make a mistake and may or may not involve intercourse. With prepositions, there are a couple saving differences. First, they’re mostly short words like “on” and “off” as opposed to “hopefully” or “egregiously”. Second, the verb-modifications are usually restricted to a small set of well-known idioms. We’ve all been pissed off when someone fucked up in a way that screwed us over. Adverbs are large words and they function well when they’re adding precision– but only then. “Only three people came” is different from “three people came”, and “do not commit adultery” is very different from “do commit adultery”. Sometimes, though, adverbs fail at communicating what the writer intends. The worst culprits are false intensifiers: just, very, quite, and the worst criminal of them all when used by bad writers, literally.

“It’s literally freezing outside.” 32°F, by Midwestern standards, is a pleasant winter day. You de-emphasized.

“A literal ton of people came to her party.” You said, “Approximately 15”.

“He literally sleeps with his dog.” What’s wrong with that? I’d be disgusted if you said he figuratively slept with his dog.

“I literally got fired.” I’ve had some terrible employers and some unjust terminations, but I’ve never been burnt at the sake. I’m sure that many have had the thought, but the law protects me from me from that.

Let’s ignore the worst examples. What’s wrong with, “it was quite hot”? Well, one problem is that quite has a different meaning in the UK (where it literally diminishes) from in the US (where it may diminish but is intended to intensify). We can fix that. “It was very hot.”

There isn’t anything wrong with it, but might we do as well with “it was hot”? Is the weather important to the character? If it is, we might want to give it more words and say, “The sun was directly overhead and her brow was covered in sweat.” (Showing, not telling.) If it’s completely unimportant, we should take it out entirely. There are cases where I can defend “It was very hot.” as the exact perfect sentence to use. If you’re writing a small child in third-person limited, you wouldn’t use “it was blistering”. If it’s 120°F, then “it was hot” might not be enough. If the weather matters enough for mention but doesn’t merit 5-50 words of showing, then you might just tell with “it was very hot”. It can work. Such examples are rare, though. If you’re writing exposition or third-person omniscient and expected to write/think as well as a writer, then you might want to cool it on the adverbs. Or maybe not. There are no rules, except one: the reader must enjoy herself.

Adverbs don’t emphasize in the way that one would expect them to. There’s a simplicity to “it was hot” that’s diminished by “it was very hot”. Like “said”, “it was” is a pair of invisible words (in this context) and you’ve roughly doubled the amount of entropy (“very hot” versus “hot”) for what is usually no gain. Without comparison or exposition (which may not be worth the words/bits if weather isn’t an important detail) the two sentences mean the same thing, and so the quicker one wins.

This said, one can go too far in cutting adverbs. Some, like not, don’t deserve to be cut. It’s often said that you should use a stronger verb, e.g. “she sprinted” instead of “she ran fast”. I agree. But, there isn’t always such a word out there, and cutting adverbs isn’t a good reason to use a word that your reader won’t know. There are combinations for which stronger verbs don’t exist. You can end up replacing an adverb with an adverbial phrase. Some adverbial phrases are tight– “she said, with a smile”– and some are just clunky. Adverbial phrases, like adverbs, can be beautiful or horrible and it takes a keen eye (and, to be frank, copious revision) to know the difference.

I’m only scratching the surface when it comes to what’s possible by applying information theory to reading and writing. Now, read the last sentence again. I used a cliche! Now, was that bad or good? That’s also tricky. There are powerful idioms that, like cliches, have been said over and over. To fuck up or to piss off were clever and colorful when invented, but they’re common idioms now and should be used when they work (assuming a context in which profanity is acceptable). They communicate efficiently. Scratching the surface is more work for the reader, and (another cliche) right on the borderline. In my view, it’s okay to use a cliche if it saves effort for the reader. Unless there’s value in the exposition, don’t be clever and say, “He made a mistake of such severity that it reminded him of failed copulations past.” Just say, “He fucked up.” Maybe, “he screwed the pooch” or “he shat the bed”. Cliches are fine (in moderation) if you know what they are, know when you’re using them, don’t expect to be treated as clever for using them, and– by far, most importantly– don’t use only them.

2 thoughts on “Crossing the Equator 3: Why “she said” is divine, and about adverbs.

  1. Repeated words often creep into first drafts and other hasty writing, and a lack of care and thought in editing.

    • Sure. I think they suggest a thought loop. Even though most educated people have vocabularies in the 30-50k range, we’re usually in an emotional state where we’re more limited in what we can draw up. If it suggests the right emotional state for the narrator (in third-person limited) then it works well. If it reminds us that we’re reading words written by a writer rather than the experienced truth of a person in the story, then it doesn’t work so well.

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