I have to admit I get irritated every so often with the current war on adverbs.
One of the outcomes is that well-meaning but inexperienced editors go through an author’s work slashing out anything that has even the slightest hint of an adverb, as if the author doesn’t know what they are doing (and sometimes the author is way more experienced than the editor).
Another is the proliferation of ‘writing software’ that advertises itself as being able to eliminate those pesky adverbs and ruthlessly highlights any word ending in -ly, for deletion.
So what’s the story? Well, let’s first think about adverbs. They’re a class of words that modify adjectives – ‘usually’, ‘certainly’, ‘undoubtedly’ and (wait for it) ‘yesterday’ among them. If they didn’t exist, we’d have a LOT of trouble writing proper sentences. No adverbial phrases: ‘I did that yesterday’, for instance.
So why the war on adverbs? The problem is specific: most writers at the beginning of the learning curve use them to modify nouns or as descriptors of mood: ‘”I agree,’”said Roger smugly.’ That lends itself to ‘telling’, not ‘showing’, which is usually upheld as another Bad Thing in novice writing. There is a lot I can say about the proper place of ‘telling’ – which does, in fact, have a place in good writing. Suffice to say, telling is appropriate and necessary too, but only if it’s properly used. Alas, adding an adverb to the end of a phrase isn’t one of those proper uses.
In the example I’ve used, for instance, it’s better to show that Roger is smug through some other description – even if that adds half a dozen words:
‘”I agree,” Roger said. Jane could feel the smugness in his voice.”
‘”I agree,” Roger said. Jane turned to face him: “Don’t be so smug.”’
See what I did? By ‘telling’ Jane’s reaction, I’m ‘showing’ Roger’s feeling – and there are several ways of doing it, depending on the wider context and purpose of the phrase. That technique deepens the writing, because it creates a sense of tension and emotion, and that’s what draws readers.
The extra words are not an issue. One of the reasons why writers use -ly words is because it seems, superficially, to be more efficient on word length than a half-dozen word phrase. But what counts more is the clarity of the reading experience, including maintaining the rhythm (‘beats’) of the whole passage.
So the issue of eliminating adverbs isn’t just a matter of slashing them out – it’s part of a wider development of skill-set that embodies the broad skill of writing.
That’s one of the reasons why I object to these automatic grammar tools – they address the pitfalls into which most noob writers fall, but they don’t actually teach why the pitfall exists or show how all aspects of writing integrate together.
If you want to know more, watch this space…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016