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Truly, Madly, Deeply

July 8, 2010

I read some advice on writing once that suggested that basic nouns and verbs are the stuff of good writing, while flowery adjectives and complex verbs are superfluous. I’m not sure how much I agree with this statement, as I find adjectives useful in many contexts. Somehow, the phrase “It was day,” is not as interesting to me as “It was a boiling hot Martian day,” although I suppose that could also be expressed without adjectives: “It was day on Mars, and the temperature was well above 100° Fahrenheit.”

Ok, now that I’ve written both of those out, the specific details of the second sentence ARE more appealing to me. I kinda shot myself in the foot with that one.

For me, however, there is one thing that is worse than sprinkling one’s writing with strings of “superfluous” adjectives. Adverbs. They make me shudder. Not pleasantly, but horribly. (Yes, I did that on purpose. I’m making a point here. Shh. Read on, uncomplainingly.)

Most books that offer advice on writing tell me that I should show rather than tell. This statement is annoying in the same way that “Write what you know,” is bothersome, because most of us who are writers know that it’s true, but we’re also tired of hearing it, reading it, dreaming about it. (In my nightmares, hordes of zombies traipse up my stairs and break all my windows in an attempt to get into my apartment. Despite my efforts to fight them off by flinging cans of beans at them, they break in and grab me. I scream, certain that they’re about to feast on my flesh, and then one of them groans in my ear, “Show, don’t tell. Graaaah.”)

The point is, I understand the concept of showing rather than telling. Boy, do I understand it. Telling my readers what’s happening is lazy, not to mention kind of dull.

Enter the adverb. Nothing tells like an adverb does. It’s a grand way to gloss over all the details and explain what is happening in a single word. Worse still, there are the superlatives, which mean NOTHING as far as I’m concerned and are just a dandy way for desperate idiots to boost their word count: “very,” “particularly”, “extremely,” “greatly,” “considerably.” Writers who overuse the adverb are the laziest of the lazy. They don’t have the zombie dream, I guess, or maybe they would be as scared to use too many adverbs as I am.

I admit, I can’t do it all the time. For instance, when I write non-fiction, I have to cover my ass by throwing in lots of “generally’s”, “usually’s”, and “often’s.”  An example: childhood obesity is OFTEN caused by poor lifestyle choices, but not always, and if I didn’t insert the “often,” I would be lying. It shames me every time I have to phrase things in this way, but one of the most important parts of a non-fiction article (well, to me, anyway) is accuracy.

One of the biggest over-users of adverbs  I’ve encountered is the author of the Harry Potter series, Ms. J.K. Rowling. Don’t get me wrong: I like Harry Potter. I’ve read the books and seen the movies and they were enjoyable. I’m in a Harry Potter themed online knitting group (wow, I’m a nerd). I admit, this tendency in her writing DID get better over time, although the title of the seventh book is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

But look at some quotes from the third novel, which is my favorite, despite its flaws:

“‘It’s not funny, Ron,’ said Hermione sharply…” (pg. 47)

“‘Excellent!'” said Harry happily…” (pg. 47)

“‘But it’ll be fascinating to study them from the wizarding point of view,’ said Hermione earnestly…” (pg. 47)

“‘How about a nice book?’ said Ron innocently…” (guess which page?)

Sharply? Are her eyebrows arched, is her voice clipped, are her hands on her hips?  Happily? Is he grinning, are his eyes bright? I know that these are books intended for children, but children deserve details just as much as adults do. I don’t mean to insult the Harry Potter series or its author, but this feature of her writing strikes me…often.

An edit: Yes, I know that “well” is an adverb, and that this post is, in fact, riddled with them. My point is that it’s good for writers to TRY to avoid using them. So shut up. Graci0usly.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2010 12:06 am

    I admire your blog. Wish I could write like you. Logical flow of ideas. Seemingly written as spoken (clear and simple). Seemingly effortless.

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