Gillian Cross Shares the Secret to Keeping Things Simple

I’m delighted and honoured to welcome to the blog today Carnegie Medal winner, Gillian Cross, who has some revealing things to say about writing style.

Plain and Fancy

I once told another writer that I try to avoid using adverbs and adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. He looked at me as though I was crazy. ‘But adverbs are where it’s at,’ he said.

I went away feeling incompetent. How could I call myself a writer if I couldn’t even manage a few measly adverbs. Was my writing laughably simple and lacking in refinement? Maybe I should try a more elaborate style.

Instead of writing:

Inch by inch, George crept up to the battered door. Behind it, he could hear something that snarled and scratched at the wood.

Maybe I should make it a bit fancier:

Stealthily, inch by inch, George tiptoed up to the crazily battered door; behind it, he could hear something that snarled hoarsely at the back of its throat as its long, savage claws raked the panelled surface of the door.

Would that be better?

That’s a frivolous example, but there are big questions here about style. Is it important to take things slowly and help your reader to visualise every last detail of how things happen? Or is it better to concentrate on keeping the action moving, with just a few carefully selected details to help the reader make her own pictures? Does the action have to take centre stage or is it good to invite the reader to stand back and admire the imagery? Is being musical or elegant more important than being brisk?

The answer – of course – is that there is no cut and dried answer. Writers (and readers) have different tastes and different abilities. But there are a few basic principles that I keep repeating to myself:

1. Whether you’re writing plain or fancy, every word has to earn its place on the page. If a word isn’t adding anything – cut it. Every lazy, unnecessary word dulls the impact of the good ones.

2. Remember that the reader can’t see inside your head. If you cut out too much description, of either places or people, the writing won’t be terse and muscular. It will just be confusing. The reader won’t know where the characters are or how they’re behaving.

3. A sense of structure is crucial. It’s fine to take your time over describing something, but readers need to know where they are. They don’t like to feel that the author’s lost his way in a forest of lush description.

4. Above all, there needs to be a sense of pace, a thread connecting each word to the next and each sentence to the only that follows. Whether the book is on paper or on screen, readers need a reason to move through the paragraphs and turn the pages. In the end, story is more powerful than style.

That’s what I think anyway. But I might see it differently if I were a fancy writer . . .

About the Author

Gillian Cross began writing for children thirty years ago. She has won the Carnegie Medal (for Wolf), and the Smarties Prize and the Whitbread Children’s Novel Award (for The Great Elephant Chase). Four of her Demon Headmaster books have been televised and she travels widely to speak about her work.

Her latest novel Where I Belong is a story with guns, bandits and supermodels,and her most recent book is a retelling of Homer’s great story The Odyssey.

5 thoughts on “Gillian Cross Shares the Secret to Keeping Things Simple

  1. Karen says:

    I do think it depends on what genre you are writing as to how fancy or plain you write, but in general I agree with all the points raised! I’m an adventure/action writer so I do tend to write short & snappy…although I can be a bit of an adjective junkie if I let myself go!!! 🙂

    • As a reader I like ‘snappy’ prose so as a writer I trim my adverbs. In fact I think Gillian’s post has inspired me to write one about avoiding adverbs, for the benefit of us lean writers.

  2. russellbittner says:


    Thanks for this!

    One more “basic (and, methinks, quite humorous) principle” to add to your clutch: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” (Mark Twain).


  3. […] the Plain or Fancy post from Gillian Cross, I got to thinking about adverbs. How and when should we use them? Is right […]

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