Monday, April 12, 2010

The Ways of the World: Addled by Adverbs

Editing is hell on the self esteem.

I took a poem that was quite nice to a workshop last week, and one of the comments was a request for a few less adverbs, if possible. For a long time, I wondered why so many have a prejudice over these little words that end in -ly.

I now see why it is so prevalent. These buggers are everywhere in my writing, lengthening sentences, helping me cop out of any meaningful description.

It's a travesty.

Adverbs are useful sometimes, but their overuse is a bad habit any writer can succumb to. You become so used to them in daily speech that they pop up in all your descriptions and nonfiction work as well. I cut at least fifty words from the prologue of my novel in adverbs alone. The word count benefited from this purge. It reads a lot clearer now, and the descriptions have more depth. I'll have a longer novel by forcing myself to give full descriptions, rather than using the adverb of the day.

How can you tell if you use too many adverbs in your work? My advice is to read it aloud, or have someone read it to you. Hearing it from an outside source and reading it on your own would be the best plan, for there are things you will notice stumbling over your words that will not pop up in your brain if you are listening to a piece, and vice-versa. Reading my prologue aloud at the Hotel Chelsea Literary Night on Thursdays @ 6 SLT did it for me. Every time I stumbled over my words an adverb was involved. Every. darn. time.

Why is this? Well, it comes from all the -ly's. You use too many adverbs, the -ly's breed like rabbits, and all of a sudden you feel like you are repeating yourself all the time. Even the most convoluted and original adverbs will become just another word for a reader to skip over.

And if you cause your readers to skip over too many words, well, the best idea for a story could be lost to glazed over eyes, and your book going back on the bookstore shelf, or never leaving the slush pile.

The real problem with adverbs is that they are weak words. There's always a phrase that can do it better, always a more constructive way to get that description across. They are great for dialogue. They are verbal shorthand that most of us use in our everyday lives. A well crafted conversation will use adverbs sparingly to give that feel of "real" speech, as will a good conversational piece of writing.

Adverbs have no place in description of setting or story, however. Cut them out. I have come to the painful conclusion that they dilute my writing. They do have their place, like any other part of speech. The job of a world building wordsmith is know where that place is, and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

No comments:

Post a Comment