Friday, February 3, 2012

Adverbs and adjectives

Hi folks,
I've posted this before, but it's been awhile and in the past I've received good feedback from people who haven't seen it before. Hope it helps inform your own writing a bit!

THE REJECTION OF ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES AND OTHER EXAMPLES OF BAD OR MISGUIDED ADVICE TO WRITERS

As thinking creatures, most of us look for easier ways to complete tasks. That includes writing. Nothing wrong with that—it’s a mark of intelligence. Sometimes, though, that approach can get us in trouble. We seem to have a need for shortcuts and sometimes end up relying on bumper sticker kinds of slogans to guide us in our writing.

Sayings like: Write what you know. That’s about the silliest advice ever given a writer. If we wrote “what we knew,” we’d be unable to write about murder… unless we’d murdered someone. We’d find it impossible to write stories set in the future or the distant past… unless we’d lived a thousand years or had a time machine. We couldn’t write from the opposite gender’s pov. Or, from the pov of an animal. We couldn’t write about anything we didn’t personally know about. The proper advice is: Write what you can convince the reader you know. Problem is, that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker as easily…

Another of those bumper sticker slogans thrust upon writers is: Show, don’t tell. Like most of these nifty sayings, there’s a germ of truth buried there. The fact is, there are plenty of times in fiction when telling works much better than showing and is the proper thing to do. You can’t show everything. If you did, you’d end up with a… screenplay. This is one reason novels are longer than screenplays. Three-four hundred pages versus ninety. A lot of those additional pages are devoted to… telling. Exposition/summary. It’s one of the advantages of a novel over a screenplay for a literary or reading experience.

Witness:

It was not that he was a cowed or naturally timorous person, far from it; but he had been for some time in an almost morbid state of irritability and tension. He had cut himself off from everybody and withdrawn so completely into himself that he now shrank from every kind of contact. He was crushingly poor, but he no longer felt the oppression of his poverty. For some time he had ceased to concern himself with everyday affairs. He was not really afraid of any landlady, whatever plots he might think she was hatching against him, but to have to stop on the stairs and listen to all her chatter about trivialities in which he refused to take any interest, all her complaints, threats, and insistent demands for payment, and then to have to extricate himself, lying and making excuses—no, better to creep downstairs as softly as a cat and slip out unnoticed.

That kind of looks like “telling” or “exposition” to me. And it is. It’s also from a pretty good country writer—a guy named Dostoevsky and it’s from a book which has enjoyed healthy sales, a little tome titled Crime and Punishment. Bet that bumper sticker (Show, don’t tell) wasn’t on his writer’s buggy…

Sayings like: Avoid adverbs and be sparing of adjectives. Which just happens to be the point of today’s discourse.

Why on earth would a writer avoid using adverbs? They’re a legitimate part of speech and, if used properly can be among the strongest tools in the writer’s toolbox. Most will claim they’re the weakest, but I’ll show you some examples where no other part of speech works as well.

The same deal holds with adjectives. Used properly—which means with originality—they can transform your prose.

So where does this advice come from? That’s easy. It comes from the selected reading style of many writing teachers. By “selective reading” I mean lazy reading. A person who sees part of a piece of advice, but either ignores the rest of it or just doesn’t see it—it’s invisible to him or her. If it doesn’t come from lazy reading, it perhaps comes from a predilection for… lazy teaching. It’s just so much easier to tell our little charges to eschew adverbs and most adjectives, rather than actually reading the writer’s work and showing him or her which work well and which don’t and why. To do that would be… work. Or, perhaps this advice comes from the fruit of the same tree—the instructor simply parrots what was taught him or her and accepts everything his or her mentor passed on as gospel without challenging it. Again, a form of laziness.

John Gardner said, “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” William Zinsser said, “Most adjectives are… unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”

Here’s how several generations of writers have read these guys’ advice.
Don’t use adverbs and adjectives.
Which… isn’t exactly what they said. They’re like the Paul Harvey’s of writing instruction. Well, they’re like half of a Paul Harvey. They kind of forget to include that famous “rest of the story.”
You wonder if those who keep parroting this advice on adverbs and adjectives have read what these guys actually said. All of those folks quoted are good, if not, great writers and teachers. Makes sense that what they’re telling us is sound, right? Well, if we actually read what they said precisely. Nary a one of them said: Don’t use adverbs and adjectives. Just about every one of them had a disclaimer. Gardner: “…or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” Zinsser: “Most adjectives…” Notice he didn’t say all; he said most. That sort of means that some adjectives and adverbs work and work well. Zinsser also went on to say: “…they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think…” And, that’s the source of the problem. Writing instructors who pass on these “rules” haven’t stopped to think themselves perhaps, so they’re incapable of recognizing students as being any different from themselves. Writers who… don’t stop to think.
What each of these guys is maintaining is that adverbs and adjectives are fine to use… if used judiciously. With originality. That’s the… rest of the story. The important part that never seems to be delivered in classes and books.
I took a lot of the information here from three sources. One, from the best writer’s textbook ever written, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and from a 2006 article by Ben Yagoda in the NY Times, which you can accesss at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/books/chapters/0311-1st-yago.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2 . Also, some of the material here can be found in my writing book, Finding Your Voice.
Used thoughtfully (which some of these writing advisors don’t think you’re capable of, alas), adverbs and adjectives can sharpen and illuminate your prose magnificently, as in the following examples:
"In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country-fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof." -Roger Angell on the gridwork at the new baseball stadium in Baltimore
"She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils." -Sylvia Townsend Warner
"The Sunday's events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant." -John Updike
"He had the surface involvement-style-while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind." -Nicholson Baker on Updike
"The great out-sticking ears that frame his face like cartilaginous quotation marks." -Michael Kelly on Ross Perot
 “She had been to Germany, Italy, everywhere that one visits acquisitvely.” Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

“She jammed the pedal to the floor, and like something huge and pre-historic and pea-brained, the Jeep leapt stupidly out of its stall.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“So closely had we become tied to the river that we could sense where it lay and make for it instinctively like cattle.” W.D. Wetherell, Chekhov’s Sister

“When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter.” Toni Morrison, Sula

“With a bladdery whack it (the boat) slapped apart and sprang away.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“Hank was not accepted at Harvard Law School; but goodhearted Yale took him.” John Updike, “The Other”

“On the far side of the room, under the moiling dogs the twins are playing.” Francois Camoin, “Baby, Baby, Baby”

Are you gonna tell these people not to use adjectives or adverbs?

My advice isn’t to eliminate adverbs and adjectives. Just take some time and use them in an original way. They’ll elevate your writing if you do. Just about everybody who is writing these days is culling out their adverbs and pruning their adjectives. If you can learn to use both in truly original ways, whose work do you think is going to stand out?

You might wonder if I’ve ever given any of my writing students advice to not use adverbs and adjectives. Well, sure. Nobody’s perfect! I’ve also changed. Like they say: If you’re green, you’re growing—if you’re ripe, you’re rotten.” I hope I’m green enough to not keep telling folks the same things, ad nauseum. Especially if I discover the advice was wrong. In this case, I think it is.

The next time somebody delivers a writing “absolute” to you—especially one that could easily fit into a bumper sticker--you might want to look at it with a clear and open mind. Don’t trust everything you hear. In fact, your own instincts are often much better than what others may tell you. Chances are, you’re a writer because you were a reader first, and it’s that reading experience that I suspect has given you the best body of advice you’ll ever get for your work. You’ve already internalized most of what you need to know from reading lots and lots of books. Use it. It’s trustworthy most of the time.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,
Les

6 comments:

Tracy said...

Hi Les,

I read this post at the perfect time. Last Friday I put my manuscript into a drawer after a recent edit.

I’ve been agonizing over every adverb and adjective (pretty much for all the reasons you listed) and I just had to walk away. I've been frustrated because repeatedly I’ve read: Avoid the adverb! Show, don't tell!

Being the good little student I am, I pulled out adverbs (well-placed or not) like I was weeding a garden.

And then I stopped and said: This is one bleeping sterile story.

So, it's in a drawer for a bit.

I'd started to come to the conclusion that all of this "toe the line" cutting wasn't the way to go. Getting your perspective today chipped a little apprehension off of my chest. (Thank you for that!)

I'll still weigh descriptive language, of course, but I'm giving myself some room to break those "rules."

Thanks again for your post, Les. I don’t always comment, but I always read what you share here. One question before I hit submit: where is the best place to purchase "Finding Your Voice"? I just checked B&N and Amazon, but they are not selling new copies at this point.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Tracy and thanks for all your comments! I'm glad it helped!

As for Voice, I guess I assumed it was still available on Amazon. I know they still have copies for sale. You might try Writer's Digest on their website and they should be able to get you a copy. If you can't locate it there, shoot me an email at butchedgerton@comcast.net and I've got a couple extra and can sell you one if you want. Thanks!

Tracy said...

How's this for an incredibly late response, Les?

(Sorry.)

Ordered "Finding Your Voice" via a seller on BN.com. Hoping it arrives this week. Can't wait to read it. Thanks for your offer to sell direct, though. Appreciate it. :)

Vero said...

Hi Les,

I've landed here thanks to the wonderful and talented lady above, Tracy, who recommended your books in a blog post of hers, and has thus enriched my collection of great writing advice books.

I absolutely agree with what you said, Les. I guess I haven't fallen into the trap of being an adverb Nazi only because I have an innate repulsion against absolutes and authority *grin*, but there are indeed a lot of awfully stigmatized writing props and tricks that most young writers meet with loathing instead of learning how to use them.

I'm working at my first novel and I've stopped when I was almost finished 2 times already, because I realized I hadn't been honest to what I really wanted to write about and how I want to write it, for fear I might step on the toes of some advice I'd been given. It takes a lot of courage for inexperienced writers to ignore advice they're get yelled at with from all sides, even if their gut tells them otherwise.

So thank you for reinforcing healthy skepticism and reminding us that we should keep a critical eye on what we do to our fiction.

Thank you for the great post, and sorry for the long comment!

off to read more of your stuff

Karen said...

Hi Les,
I also found my way here through a link on Tracy's blog. I'm very impressed with what I've read and will most certainly come back to read more.
And thank you for bringing up subjects I've often had doubts about before....adverbs/adjectives and showing vs telling.
I wrote a post on my blog recently (The Best Writing Instructors) that echos what you said in your last paragraph. Every reader has favorite authors. And there's a reason we keep reading their books. Learning what it is they do, and how they do it, to make you keep coming back is probably the best lesson in writing.
And, yes, they use adverbs and adjectives when they're needed and they tell when showing just doesn't leave the right impression.
Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

Karen said...

Hi Les,
I also found my way here through a link on Tracy's blog. I'm very impressed with what I've read and will most certainly come back to read more.
And thank you for bringing up subjects I've often had doubts about before....adverbs/adjectives and showing vs telling.
I wrote a post on my blog recently (The Best Writing Instructors) that echos what you said in your last paragraph. Every reader has favorite authors. And there's a reason we keep reading their books. Learning what it is they do, and how they do it, to make you keep coming back is probably the best lesson in writing.
And, yes, they use adverbs and adjectives when they're needed and they tell when showing just doesn't leave the right impression.
Looking forward to reading more of your posts.