Monday, April 13, 2015

Cautiously yet deliberately defending adverbs

This photo has nothing to do with today's post, I've just never been able to use it here before, so I thought I'd share. Yes, I took it. That's Boo Boo, finishing off my lunch (after the cat and I made a hasty retreat into the cabin when we saw him coming).

Sometime back a small online literary journal rejected a piece I'd written about rattlesnakes, or at least, my reflections following three all-too-close encounters with the deadly reptiles. The editors, who pride themselves on being "kind," sent the manuscript back to me "with notes," which amounted to three sentences. The first sentence questioned the veracity of the "memoir" piece. (I can actually understand this, given how much prevaricating has been going on in the interest of producing lively "true" stories. But my stubborn integrity won't allow me to embellish, so I guess I'm never going to get that big book deal about my risqué prison experiences.) The second sentence stated that the editor also passed on the story "due to the use of adverbs." The third sentence was an invitation to verify, revise and submit again.

Let's go back to that second sentence. Um... what?

So I guess this has been a thing for a while, but since I spend more time reading novels than I do perusing online sites that teach how to write them, I hadn't picked up on the current fad faux pas. Vilifying adverbs has now replaced Never use the passive voice which replaced Show, don't tell. I don't know what the fad was before Show, don't tell because I wasn't born yet. I mean, that fad predates my birth.

My friend and soon-to-be bestselling author, Michael Welker, is half my age and has his finger on the pulse of all that is current in today's publishing world, at least the independent, online aspect of it. Last year I did a quick proofread of the book he's working on, and we talked afterward about his generation's willingness to discard the awkward "his or her" pronouns and simply use "their" even when the antecedent is singular. "From what I read online, I think it's pretty much accepted practice now," he said. Like a knife in my heart....

So when this rejection came, I emailed him, and we began a conversation about those nasty adverbs, how they try to creep in [appear surreptitiously] and ruin everything in an otherwise great piece of writing. Bastards. Michael (because he considers thoughtfully—wait—delete "thoughtfully"—what I say, then goes looking for best practices) sent me an email a few days ago with a link to some chick's blog in which she completely and thoroughly nixes the use of adverbs. (See what I did there... defiantly?)


Yes, I get that a "good writer" (and just what the hell is that? Faulkner? Doctorow? Stephen King? Nicholas Sparks?) will be better served by choosing a strong verb over a "weak" one + adverb:

Kay typed forcefully as she vented.
Kay pounded the keyboard as she vented.

And I also get that dialogue will often sound tighter, more powerful, if the writer does not rely on adverbs to make her point:

"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay said wearily.
"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay sighed.

But in our quest to delete all adverbs, we can end up sounding amateurish. The English language only contains a finite number of verbs, and sometimes it's impossible to find one that offers a viable substitute:

"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer whispered seductively.
"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer... What? "Cooed"? What goes there? Extremists will tell me to simply delete "seductively" and go with "whispered," insisting that the verb is enough to carry her intention. Is it? What if Jennifer is a heroin addict itching for her next fix and she is reciting the litany that has earned her quick money so many times in the past? What if she's the reincarnation of Nurse Ratched and she's being ironic as she preps another inmate for a strip search?

My point is this: As William Zinsser said, "Write tight." (And if you haven't yet read OnWriting Well, you haven't done a thorough study of your craft, in my humble opinion.) I mean, you can use the "Find" option in MSWord (type the letters "ly" in the Find box when prompted) to hunt down and kill every adverb in your manuscript (well, at least those ending in "ly"), but is doing so going to make your writing stronger? While it is important to understand why adverbs should, like salt, be used sparingly (oh snap! I did it again!), it is equally important to work toward a clear, concise flow.

If you're a staunch anti-adverbist and would like to challenge me, feel free to revise any of my sentences here in the comments below. (Be kind, please, or I'll delete you.)

If you're wondering whether I did "verify and revise"—well, of course I did. I rewrote the entire piece sans adverbs and resubmitted with an assurance that everything I said was absolutely (ok, no, I didn't really use "absolutely" in my cover email) true. Within days I received another rejection. But it was kind

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