Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Confessing willingly and enthusiastically

I got the impression that blogs are supposed to have a confessional component, but rather than tell you about who I pissed off in the fourth grade, I will tell you about the writing sins of which I have striven to cleanse myself. This seems more useful.

First and foremost among these is the adverb, that part of speech that cunningly, obnoxiously, brazenly weasels its way onto the page and subverts good prose. The adverb is like that guy who is always hanging around your desk at work, following you to Starbucks for 3 p.m. skinny vanilla lattes and suggesting ways for you two to "collaborate" and "synergize." You think he is your friend, or at least a productive coworker, until you realize that his idea of "collaboration" is garnishing your analysis of Russia's commodity exports with a few sentences about how furry Cossack hats are trending. And he's putting his name above yours because, you know, his name is Aaron Aaronson.*

The adverb is like that guy.

And I'll confess that I used to like the adverb. I was impressed by the adverb's Etro power ties, his definitely-not-Photoshopped vacation photos from Nepal, and his endless knowledge of 90s catchphrases. I thought the adverb was cool, smart, and funny, and I thought that hanging around with him would make me cooler, smarter, and funnier. So I invited him to all my parties, let him drink all my Grey Goose, and didn't complain when he puked in my bathtub.

But then I heard whispers of this adverb guy being a bad influence. When Stephen King famously said that J. K. Rowling "seems to have never met [an adverb] she didn't like," when Strunk and White admonished me against relying on these unstable companions, I took a closer look at the scum rings in my tub and realized they were right.

Adverbs cause two kinds of problems for the enterprising writer. First, they add redundancy. When I read paragraphs full of people slamming doors furiously, whispering conspiratorially, and gesticulating wildly, I get the same rush of annoyance that I feel when someone explains the obvious:
"FIRST you pour the milk, THEN you add the cereal, and THEN..."
"Just let me eat my Rasin Bran!"
Second, they let you get away with laziness. They keep you from writing stronger, more invigorating verbs because hey, adverbs are like Viagra for tired, flaccid verbs, right? You could skedaddle, but you settle for walking quickly. You could eviscerate your lunch, but instead you eat sloppily.

Asking myself whether I need an adverb reminds me of my favorite flowchart (thanks, Toothpaste for Dinner). So you think you need an adverb. Does it clarify the way an action occurred?
  1. No? Then you're pounding extra verbiage into the reader's head. Cut it.
  2. Yes? Is there a more specific, vivid verb that conveys the same thing? Cut the adverb and upgrade the verb.
No doubt you have realized that there is a third way. An adverbial way. What if the adverb really does tell you something that a new verb couldn't? What if it reveals something unexpected about the way things went down? If someone is...
  • loving savagely
  • wailing joyfully
  • killing me softly
...then maybe the adverb can stay. But hide the vodka in the top cupboard, just in case.


*I do not know anyone by this name, and if such a person exists, I'm sure he is actually a delightful individual.

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