Saturday, May 9, 2009

Adverbs and Other Descriptors, Part 1

Below is a re-post of a blog entry originally published July 13, 2007. It returned to mind after a recent conversation with a fellow writer as we discussed revisions of our own work, and our frustrations with newer writers who say they want our help but then act defensive, and refuse to heed the very advice they solicited. Then there are writers, new and experienced, who are so bound by rules that they miss the story. Therefore, I present an almost-defense of reviled words.

I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect
-Henry James

I quit using adjectives and adverbs as if sheer numbers would make a difference
-Terry Brooks

The road to hell is paved with adverbs
. -Stephen King

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't
-Mark Twain, "Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

Ah, the adverb. Even when it's being reviled, it's still in use. The adverb, like the adjective, is a word used to describe something else; an adverb usually describes a verb, though an adverb can sometimes occupy the place of an adjective, and does not always end in -ly. In this case, "usually" is the adverb, and "describes" is the verb.

We use adverbs, adjectives, and gerunds (-ing words) all the time in our everyday speech. Why, then, are they anathema in modern writing? And should we toss them out altogether?

Sometimes, those adverbs and adjectives are just what we need. Sometimes, we need to seek just the right descriptor in order to make an action or a feature distinct. After all, if a reader does not know how an old cowboy walks to the corral, we present only flat action when we write, "The old cowboy walked to the corral."

However, if we describe how he walks, we make the scene come alive: "Legs as bowed as the twin lines guarding his smile, he hobbled down from the porch and crossed the hard-packed yard with tilting steps, each one placed with care, the outer edges of his soles worn flat from years of walking as if he still gripped the barrel of a horse between his knees."

Yeah, okay, so that sentence isn't exactly crisp, but does it need to be? Can you see this man walking to the corral? Could the same effect be achieved without any description?

Leave out all the adverbs, adjectives, and gerunds, and what do you have? "He hobbled from the porch and crossed the yard." That may be all you want, all you need to say. If so, more power to ya. After all, sometimes brief action is the only transition required; and, if you've shown the reader once how this character walked, having him hobble may be the only thing necessary to move the story along.

In English we must use adjectives to distinguish the different kinds of love for which the ancients had distinct names. -Mortimer Adler.

- to be continued -


Alexander Field said...

Yeah the whole problem with Adverbs has always baffled me too. Stephen King downright hates them and somehow, over the years, I've gotten used to plucking out the adverbs that sound overly dramatic or unnecessary. But you can't help but use them, why not embrace them? Give your adverbs a hug today.

Keanan Brand said...

Alex - (laughing) Yeah, we writers gotta stick up for the words!

(Just as long as there are no children's choirs in the background singing something like "We Are the WORD" or something equally melodramatic.)