Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Adverbs suck

You read different when you write.  No, I'm serious.  How many of us read a book for pleasure and keep count of adverbs?  How many of us actually know what an adverb is, for that matter?  Here's a challenge: go up to your five closest friends and ask each for an example of an adverb, and then let me know how many of them laughed at you.  My bet is that, if you then subtract that number from five, you'll know how many of them are English majors, doctoral candidates, or, worse...writers. 

Adverbs, to put it plainly, modify verbs.  If a verb says the subject moved, an adverb can say how fast.  They allow us to describe a scene more thoroughly.  See, that was an adverb..."thoroughly."  You can usually see them hiding behind an "ly" ending.  And adverbs, to put it plainly again, suck.  Stephen King said, "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs" and called them the literary equivalent of dandelions on your lawn.  Having read that, of course, I, ever the contrarian, ran right out and looked in one of his books.  Don't recall which one, and it's pretty much irrelevant.  I was expecting to see how the man manages to create prose without using one of the parts of speech.  The answer...surprisingly, or not, that he doesn't.   Didn't get through more than a couple of pages without seeing a weed sprouting in the master's lawn.  But then again, we all use them.  It's really, really difficult to go through a spate of linguistic construction without using, say, "really," just once.  Or twice, as you can now see. 

But Stephen King himself said that adverbs aren't always bad.  "Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind....  With adverbs, the writer usually tells us...that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across."  So a few are unavoidable, even possibly good.  As I have listened to my new copy of L. Ron Hubbard's book detailing a one-man-army's attempt at killing The Arbiter, whoever that is, I've noticed that adverbs are sprinked through like ghost chiles in a salsa.  A touch adds flavor, as you can clearly see when they say that the spacecraft swiftly takes to flight.  But too much makes it unpalatable, as the example in On Writing makes clear. 

That said, the book from Hubbard does make extremely scant use of adverbs.  Makes sense,'s the way we normally talk.  How many of you, for example, go through life saying things like, "the boss says, vociferously, that we should do this"?  None of you, I'd bet.  Adverbs are sprinkled sparingly through the garden of our speech, so they should also be sprinkled sparingly in our books, to break a perfectly good metaphor early. 

So, once again, I come to one of those "there ain't no equation" things.  Writing is truly an art, not a science.  And it's that, I think, that explains why I enjoy it so. 

Word count: 40,425

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