Safe Writing

safeSafe Writing

I know I’ve been driveling on about appearing naked on the page and telling your emotional, if not literal, truth. I absolutely believe that this is the way to compelling story-telling. But it is exhausting. And frustrating. And makes you long to retreat into safe writing.

What is safe writing?

It’s your fallback position. It’s what you find easy to write—whether action, romance, or humor. We all have comfort zones where we feel that we’ve mastered the craft involved and the subject no longer terrifies, if it ever did.

I know a very fine writer who could write sensuously and sensitively about sex. This is no mean feat—most of us have trouble with this type of scene, worried it will be too much or too little; too crass or too vague. But she mastered them. Except for a problem which can be true of any type of fallback writing. Often it seemed that when she had a choice to go deeper into the characters, she would veer off into a sex scene. And since she did it very well, the reader was distracted away from what might have been a more fruitful area.

I’m not suggesting avoiding what you’re good at, but it’s important to be aware when you might be using it as a crutch. Or, better analogy, a scenic route that allows you to avoid the main road.

Why do writers do this?

Risk-free writing is self-protective

I think a common reason is the one illustrated above. Going deeper into the characters usually means going deeper into yourself. Which is undoubtedly scary. A character’s conflict with her mother may bring up painful memories of your life. To avoid revisiting these uncomfortable feelings, you instead create a mother and daughter who get along, support each other, and have each other’s backs. Which you probably can’t write convincingly as you didn’t have the experience of that. So, might not be good writing but it protects you.

Unfortunately, these painful areas are often where the gold is. When you use your experience of similar thoughts or feelings to inform the characters’ psyches, they ring truer because they are truer. Remembering being abandoned and allowing these feelings to be with you as you write can make powerful writing.

But only if you are willing not to play it safe.

Or derivative

The other, more practical, reason to avoid safe writing is that it is often bad writing. Protecting yourself from unpleasant feelings keeps you on the surface. And then the piece feels derivative because you’re not bringing your authentic self to it. The unique voice and perspective that makes you worth reading.

Do I need to be wild and crazy?

No, you don’t need to be wild and crazy in your writing. Unless that is actually you.

But there are two things that you can try to get out of safe writing.

The first is play. Play with what a scene or a character might look and feel like if it was more based on you than on some ideal. Don’t have to use it in your final manuscript but run up a trial balloon.

The second is to be brave. Say you try the experiment and you find (as I think you might) that the worts-and-all character which reflects some part of you is more absorbing than your original writing. Take a deep breath and see if you can use your true feelings as you write.

I know—back to exhausting and scary. But worth it when the real you shows up in your writing.

The Danger of Adverbs


The Danger of Adverbs

You’ve gotta be a writer if you’d be willing to read a posts about adverbs. I tried to stir up a little drama by calling them dangerous but even I don’t think it umps the interest all that much.

What is an adverb?

Somewhere along the line, English teachers quit teaching grammar. I don’t know if they decided to release time for Higher Things or they got bored doing it. And grammar is kind of boring. Possibly, you can make the argument that readers don’t need grammar but writers need to know a bit.

So, for those of you who had progressive English teachers, an adverb often ends in ‘ly’ and typically describes how an action is done. ‘He said it tauntingly.’ ‘She moved slowly.’ ‘He grinned weakly.

Here’s a paragraph with adverbs.

She looked at him scornfully. “You really expect me to believe that?”

“It’s true!” he said defensively.

“No way you were there,” she said emphatically.

“I was so!” he said angrily.

 Not deathless prose but other than that, what’s so bad about using adverbs?

Adverbs are short-hand and second-hand emotion

First of all, you might not have needed any of the adverbs above. Read it again without them.

She looked at him. “You really expect me to believe that?”

“It’s true!” he said.

“No way you were there.”

“I was so!”


Don’t you think the dialog gets across all the emotions used in the adverbs? I certainly get the anger, defensiveness and scorn. Sometimes you don’t need them because what you wrote already makes it clear. And doesn’t the scene move faster without them (added bonus—you can drop a couple of ‘said’s)?

But secondly, and more importantly, adverbs can be an emotional short-hand. Instead of showing the protagonist being angry (e.g. shouting, throwing something, talking through gritted teeth) you just assure the reader that he is by using ‘angrily.’ This doesn’t allow the reader to judge for himself and can also diminish the force of the emotion by encapsulating it in one word.

When it is okay to use adverbs?

Having said that, adverbs can be appropriate. If the scene or character is incidental to the plot, it may not be worth dramatizing every emotion and that’s where an adverb like ‘angrily’ can be used effectively. In fact, dramatizing every emotion of every character can clog up the story with unneeded and therefore boring explorations into psyches we fundamentally are not meant to care all that much about.

But when the character and/or the plot point is important, take the time to show the emotion. In fact, I think the pinnacle of writing about emotion is when you show it so well that you don’t have to name it. The character can hang her head, be silent, cry, and her shoulders can droop. You can convey sadness without having to have either you or the character name it. But the reader gets it. Much more effective dramatically.


So, adverbs are okay but beware of making them your default position. Slow yourself down enough to identify when you are dealing with an important emotional moment in your story and show it to your readers.