Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Q. You have said that I should use the active voice of verbs instead of the passive voice. Why is that such a big deal?

A. I feel strongly about using the active voice of verbs rather than the passive in fiction. Strunk and White urge writers to avoid the passive voice in their highly respected The Elements of Style, and Stephen King echoes that advice in his On Writing, saying emphatically, “You should avoid the passive tense” (page 122), noting that it is one of his pet peeves. The late novelist and teacher John Gardner, who was a very erudite gentleman, says the same thing in The Art of Fiction. “Clumsy writing,” he says, “is an even more common mistake in the work of amateurs, though it shows up even in the work of very good writers.” And: “The most obvious forms of clumsiness, really failures in the basic skills (emphasis mine), include such mistakes as inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice. . . .” Both King and Gardner say that the passive voice has its place sometimes, but not much in fiction. Gardner says, “But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive voice he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.” King thinks the passive voice is okay if you’re writing “instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts,” but in fiction he begs novelists to write, for instance, "The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer. Please oh please.”


Q. Using the word said after a line of dialogue all the time seems boring. Why can’t I use more descriptive verbs?

A. Using attribution verbs like gasped, laughed, spat, croaked, rasped, barked, and many others of their ilk is unnecessary and redolent of the work of amateurs and writers of pulp fiction. Speakers don’t gasp or laugh a line, they say it. Stephen King agrees, calling the use of these words “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids” (page 126 in On Writing). He admits to committing that sin in the past, but declares now that “the best form of dialogue attribution is said.” Dean Koontz declares that he never uses any attribution but said, although he may have done so in the early days, as King did. Other writers and teachers (including Elmore Leonard) have also sung the praises of the simple word said. I think you can use some other attributions as long as they aren’t of the steroid-injected kind. For instance: shouted, cried, called, whispered, murmured, mumbled. If writers go beyond that by using goofy steroid words or verbs followed by adverbs, they’re intruding in the story by explaining too much. As King says (page 128, On Writing) if your context is constructed correctly, “when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.”


Q. When I’m writing a character’s thoughts, do I have to use italics? I’ve read that it’s okay to leave out the italics on verbatim thinking as long as it’s clear who is doing the thinking. I’ve noticed many novels have almost no italics, even for direct introspection. Personally, whenever I see italics in fiction, I am reminded that an author is at work and it jars me out of the “dream.” Is this a hard rule or a matter of style choice? I have the impression that using italics for interior monologue is going out of style. Am I wrong? 

A. The Chicago Manual of Style is my unassailable authority. Its editors say that “Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be [emphasis mine] enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.” The previous edition of Chicago added: “Alternatives to enclosure in quotation marks include the use of italics or plain roman type. The choice—in fiction especially, but in other writing as well—should be the author’s, but consistency ought to be observed within a single work.” So Chicago has changed its tune on this matter, despite a long history of using italics for interior discourse. More and more I’m seeing less and less use of italics for thoughts, so I think that many publishing houses have abandoned the use of italics for thoughts. All publishers have their own in-house style sheet, so some of them are probably still using italics in this way, no matter what Chicago says. Whatever the case, you will be safe to use plain roman for all kinds of thoughts, if that’s what you prefer—and if, as you said, it’s clear who is doing the thinking. I would not, however, enclose thoughts in quotation marks, because that seems to have gone out of style and because thoughts inside quotation marks can be easily confused with spoken lines.


Q. You lined out the words reached out and in my sentence He reached out and touched her cheek. Why?

A. When people are reading fiction, they take all kinds of commonplace actions for granted—things that the writer doesn’t have to specify. In your sentence you don’t have to say that he reached out, because your readers will assume that he did so. How else could he touch her cheek? Just write “He touched her cheek.”


Q. Should I outline my novel first?

A. Some writers outline, and some don’t; some feel more comfortable following a formal plan, and others like to get started and then see what develops. You can try doing an outline and see how it feels. The kind of outline I recommend is not the numerical format like the ones you may have done in school for term papers. It’s closer to the “chapter outline” that nonfiction writers include in a proposal their book, which simply summarizes what material the author will cover in that chapter (using the third person, present tense). Each chapter summary can be short, medium, or long—or some of each, depending on the chapter and the book itself. No hard and fast rules apply. Ditto with chapter-summary outlines for a novel. I often suggest outlining to new writers because most first novels that I see show a lack of organization and control. A novel is too vast a piece of writing to hold the whole enchilada in your head. Outlining is a way to apply control, structure, and direction. Every novelist works out his own way to do this. Some cover a whole wall with notes and charts, as Fitzgerald did. Others just start with a general idea and a couple of characters and let the book write itself, as Lawrence Block claims that he does.


Find a method that works for you. Once you know what a “good” novel requires of a writer, which is what I’ve been trying to help you to learn, then you’ll know what elements you need to include, track, and develop. It’s something like creating a blueprint for building a bridge—a bridge between you and your readers. Creating timelines and action lines seems to be a good idea. You can add character sketches to those charts. If you can and want to include Time, Action, and Characters all in one outline, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine, too.


If you know something about the first part and also the ending of your novel but nothing about what’s in between, that’s okay. Don’t try to force an outline, get stumped and frustrated, and allow that to stop the writing. A novel is an organic creation, not a paint-by-numbers exercise. Novels often do tend to write themselves (or parts of themselves), as many writers have noted, so I’d say get the story going and keep writing until you get to one of those blank spots. By then something else should have grown from what you’ve already created—at least enough to give you some ideas about what to write next. Then trust your instincts.



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