Rage Against the Machine (Part One)

I was in my local supermarket yesterday when I came upon the usual tall display of paperback commercial fiction. For once, I stopped and browsed two of them. One was by someone I had never heard of, called Lee Child, the other was by the respected Robert Harris.  It was strange to the see the two of them sharing the same stand.

This series of posts is called Rage Against the Machine because I am increasingly alarmed at wrong ideas, promulgated by those inside the publishing industry, that are becoming set in stone without challenge.  These wrong ideas are so ingrained now that they almost constitute rules of writing.

I recently saw expressed on a blogsite the guest opinions of a copy editor who claimed to be handling two hundred manuscripts a year.  She provided a list of six tips.  Some of these were sensible, such as the importance of weeding out ‘weasel-words’  (those little recurring words and phrases that a writer unconsciously uses too often, without even noticing).  But three of the six infuriated me with their advice to dumb-down writing.  That is the last thing we need in a world increasingly dominated by mediocrity.  Writers need to be more ambitious, not less.

This post tackles the first of those three: that after direct speech you should limit yourself to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ and maybe occasionally allow yourself the luxury of an ‘answered’ or ‘replied’.  Anything colourful, she claims, should be avoided.  No.  No.  No.

Lee Child, so I learnt from his on-line biography today, is a prolific writer of pulp fiction, translated into forty languages, with one series alone stretching to seventeen books. Flipping through his latest book, I was horrified to find nothing but ‘said’.  I turned over more and more pages, like a god searching desperately for ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, but could not find a single colourful verb after direct speech.  And I realised that this man is writing to a formula dictated by his copy-editor.  This man writes in monochrome.

Compare that with the book by Robert Harris in the slot above Child’s on that supermarket display.  Harris has a pleasant variety of verbs after direct speech that not only keep the eye entertained but, at the same time, give a hint to the reader of attitude and atmosphere.  A colourful verb after direct speech does the job of an adverb, and concisely.  Thus at one point Harris uses the verb “shrugged” in preference to “said”, and immediately the reader senses the indifference of the speaker, at the cost of just four additional letters.

Now no doubt Lee Child makes an excellent living from his writing, and good for him.  There are many worse ways to put food on the table than writing pulp fiction.  But having achieved an established  position in his profession, it would be nice if Child now broke the restrictive bonds of these received opinions and actually dared to challenge his editor’s dogmatic opinions by bravely adding colour.  I don’t think he would lose any readers.

Harris is a more important writer than Child.  Importance in writing has nothing whatsoever to do with the number of books sold or the royalties earned.  If it did, the most important writers on this planet would be the compilers of telephone directories. You become an important writer when you change people’s opinions.  Good writing holds a mirror up to the reader and says: “Hey! This is my experience of life.  Have you found the same?”

Yes, to get our opinions and ideas across, we sugar-coat them with a veneer of entertainment, and that has always been how we lure readers into our web (hmm: three mixed metaphors in a single sentence — close to a personal record).  But when writers write solely to entertain, then we have become mere hacks, a very sad situation.

So rage against the machine!  Don’t let your writing go down the plughole of mediocrity. Use colourful language.  It’s your story.  You tell it.




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