Sunday, September 8, 2013

Write Tighter by Earl Staggs

The mystery author recently received his second Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year for his Short Stories by Earl Staggs, a collection of 16 mystery tales, available in print and ebook forms.  His Derringer Award-wining novel, Memory of a Murder, earned a long list of Five Star reviews and he served as managing editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He’s a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery as well as a frequent speaker at conferences.

Hi, Earl. It's great to have you join us here. 
Hi, Jean. When you invited us to your stop on the Mystery We Write Blog Tour, you asked us to talk about some aspect of mystery writing. A favorite topic of mine is writing tight. Here are my thoughts on one way to tighten by minimizing the number of those pesky interlopers that creep into our manuscripts, sometimes without our realizing it.

 Tell us about writing tighter and ousting adverbs. 

 Tightening our writing isn’t only about using fewer words but as much about using stronger words.

 Nouns are strong, verbs can be strong, adjectives are semi-strong, but adverbs are weak and writers should avoid using them. So the writing gurus say. I agree. Mostly.

 Not all adverbs are bad. There’s no secret agency who will send men in black suits and shades after you if your use them. Sometimes adverbs are a valid word choice. For instance, we might say, “His writing is bad” or we could say, “His writing is very bad.” The adverb “very” adds emphasis and more meaning to the statement. Or we might begin sentences with adverbs such as “Hopefully” or “Actually” and no black suits will come to our door.

 On the other hand, we might have doors closed in our faces if we overuse adverbs. There are readers -- and editors -- who consider adverbs the sign of a poor writer or one too lazy to work harder to find better and stronger word choices.

 Strong writing is tight writing so if we eliminate weak adverbs whenever possible, our writing becomes tighter.

 When we go into editing and tightening mode, we should treat each adverb as a suspect and interrogate it. Keep your Thesaurus handy and don’t be too lazy to use it. Seek out each adverb, look up the verb it modifies and try to find a stronger verb to replace the verb/adverb combination. For example: “She stared angrily at him.” Both “glared” and “glowered” are strong verbs which mean “to stare angrily” and either one could replace “stared” without the need for an adverb modifier.

 Sometimes the adverb is unnecessary. Don't say “She ran quickly to the door.” “Ran“ tells us she moved fast, so “quickly” is not needed. Don't write that someone “clenched his fist tightly.” A “clench” is always tight and “tightly” is redundant.

 The writing gurus also tell us: Never use an adverb to modify “said” or other dialogue tag. I agree. Completely.
 Here are examples:

 “I want to go,” she said firmly.

“I want to go,” she said hopefully.

“I want to go,” she said sadly.

 I have three reasons for disliking this kind of sentence:

 1. She’s saying the same line of dialogue, but she’s saying it a different way each time. The reader doesn’t know how the words were said until the end of the sentence. Better to know her mood before reading her words so we read it in correct context the first time through.

 2. Editors and readers who see a lot of this construction in our writing may be Adamant Anti-Adverbists and dismiss us as poor writers. Why take that risk when with a little more effort, we can make our work stronger and tighter and avoid rejection?
3. Using an “ly” adverb to modify a dialogue tag is telling, not showing. We all know the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule and this kind of sentence is a blatant offender. Instead, we should show her emotion first, then let her speak.
Here are examples of how we might revise those lines:
She crossed her arms and took a firm stance. “I want to go.”

I saw the glimmer of hope in her eyes when she said, “I want to go.”

She turned away, but couldn’t disguise the sadness in her voice. “I want to go.”

 Those may not be the best revisions to the lines. With some thought and effort, you can come up with better ones. Hopefully.
Thanks again, Jean, for letting me drop in with this topic. And thanks to everyone who comes by to read it. I’d love to hear other opinions, so leave a comment below. If you do, you may win a free book. At the end of the tour, I’ll draw two names from those who left comments. The first name drawn will receive a signed print copy of Memory of a Murder, a mystery novel with a long list of Five Star Reviews. The second name drawn will receive their choice of a signed print copy or an ebook of Short Stories of Earl Staggs, a collection of 16 of my published short stories.
Thanks, Earl. Very good advice (Edit that to excellent advice).

You can learn more about Earl at his website: where you can read chapter one of his mystery novel, Memory of a Murder.

You can also read a short story called “The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer.” Earl has been told that it’s the funniest story he's ever written.  And ”White Hats and Happy Trails"  a story about the day Earl spent with his boyhood idol, Roy Rogers. There’s even a picture of Earl and his wife with Roy to prove it’s all true.

Check out Short Stories of Earl Staggs, a collection of 16 of his published tales of mystery, ranging from hardboiled to humorous, available in print and ebook form.

 You can write to Earl Staggs at


Jean Henry Mead said...

Welcome back to Mysterious Writers, Earl.

WS Gager said...

Earl: I knew this was going to be a great post from the headline word of ousting! You didn't disappoint. Thanks for reminding me and showing me how to put more emotion in by tightening the writing.
W.S. Gager on Writing

M.M. Gornell said...

Excellent post, Earl! And excellent advice. I'm certainly "guilty." And also always striving to improve my writing. Your post was so right on, and I plan to internalize.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Earl, wonderful advice. In days gone by adverbs were used profusely--especially in romances. If you can find the most descriptive verb there is no need for an adverb.

Lou Allin said...

Darn good advice, Earl! You are da man. I can cut about 25% from a page with no loss. Fillers don't add anything other than bulk. I prefer a filet. That's one lesson a newbie can learn. Longer is not better.

john M. Daniel said...

"Bravo, Earl," John said admiringly.(sic)
I'm no fan of "very" or any other intensifier. It's been said that "very" is the least "very" word in our language. Consider: "A man came into the bar and announced, 'I'm very thirsty.'" It would be so much (strike "so much") stronger without the word "very." A whole different, dramatic scene shows up.

marja said...

Excellent reminder, Earl, and I'm one of the guilty parties. Thank you!
Marja McGraw

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Jean, for letting me rant here today. And thanks everyone for commenting. I'm guilty myself of filling and padding with useless words up to about the 10th draft. After that, my stuff gets tighter. Like someone said, "It's 10% writing and 90% rewriting."

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Jean, for letting me rant here today. And thanks everyone for commenting. I'm guilty myself of filling and padding with useless words up to about the 10th draft. After that, my stuff gets tighter. Like someone said, "It's 10% writing and 90% rewriting."

Collin Kelley said...

Less is always more when it comes to writing. That's been my motto.

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