The adverb liberation front

Once upon a time,  I blogged about George W. Bush. That shows you how long ago it was: he was President at the time.

One of the responses was from a charming right-wing fellow from the US, who no doubt spends his days trolling the web looking for just such a post and responding forcefully. But this chap had a good college education, so not only did he threaten me with an apocalypse and eternal flames, he also found an extract of my writing and rewrote it, removing all the adjectives and adverbs, and posted it as a comment to show the world what an incompetent fool I was.

He’d made the sing-song voice of a twelve year-old pirate narrator sound like Jake Barnes or Sam Spade, but he was only acting out, in troll form, the instructions of endless numbers of writing teachers and “coaches”, editors, authors, manuals and half a million writing advice (join today! first month free!) websites.

Eliminate all those mealy-mouthed adverbs, they say. Cross out adjectives and delete them from your dictionary.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

— Stephen King

Adverbs have an especially bad name because they are often used as qualifiers: possibly, probably, very, totally, utterly, mostly. We see them a lot in government or consultants’ reports where they work hard to undermine any firm verbs, adjectives and nouns: potentially viable. They are used as weasel words, but they are blameless. There’s nothing wrong with an adverb or two. A plague of adverbs is a different matter, but that’s true of any plague.

I’ve long had a theory that it’s all Hemingway’s fault – not his, exactly, because he knew better than anyone how to place every word so it counts – but the generations after him who wanted to be Hemingway. There’s a rule book of writing which endeavours to turn every work into Hemingway, or perhaps Elmore Leonard.

But here’s the thing: it’s just one set of rules, designed for a certain style, or a range of styles, of writing. It’s also a particularly twentieth-century US style. If you want to deliver punchy realism, then  descriptive words are used sparingly, as are all words.

Before there was Hemingway, there was Twain:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

— Mark Twain

Adjectives have a bad name in some quarters: perhaps a reaction to high Victorian prose and all those long descriptive passages people were forced to read in high school.  I’m sorry for your suffering, but take another look:

In an old house, dismal dark and dusty, which seemed to have withered, like himself, and to have grown yellow and shrivelled in hoarding him from the light of day, as he had, in hoarding his money, lived Arthur Grid. Meagre old chairs and tables, of spare and bony make, and hard and cold as misers’ hearts, were ranged in grim array against the gloomy walls; attenuated presses, grown lank and lantern—awed in guarding the treasures they inclosed, and tottering, as though from constant fear and dread of thieves, shrunk up in dark corners, whence they cast no shadows on the ground, and seemed to hide and cower from observation. A tall grim clock upon the stairs, with long lean hands and famished face, ticked in cautious whispers; and when it struck the time, in thin and piping sounds like an old man’s voice, it rattled, as if it were pinched with hunger.

— Charles Dickens, from Nicholas Nickelby

It may seem wordy compared to Leonard,  and plenty of people would scoff at the idea of Twain or Dickens using plain English and short sentences, but they did  in comparison to their contemporaries. Their descriptions include some of the most gorgeous writing you’ll ever read. Spare and bony chairs. Grim. You can see it, can’t you? Feel it?

Twain could wax as lyrical as the next author, but it depended entirely on the voice he created. Here’s Huck Finn:

 It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle.  We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.

Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see.  The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up.

Twain or Hemingway would  ignore the didactic websites and coaches: they knew that their story, their own styles, and the voices of their characters were what mattered.  Some narrators describe things, some don’t. Some sketch an outline, some paint in oils, some wave neon lights around. Most writers use too many words or thoughtless construction when we’re drafting: editing is about taking out the gratuitous  adverbs or nouns or entire passages.

I won’t tell you how to write, but I will tell you to read. Read Hemingway (especially The Sun Always Rises) but read Emma Donoghue’s Room, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall too.  Not a wasted word in any of them, but very different styles, intent and voices. Read Twain and Dickens and Austen and Tolstoy.

There are many ways to tell a story. And some involve adverbs.

2 thoughts on “The adverb liberation front

  1. Pingback: ‘Net News: 13th August 2012 « Read alert | State Library of Victoria

  2. Still, less, is, still more, even today but you give sound advice and so long as we do not take too much advice, from too many experts, we will get there yes Ia suppose one should end with -get there in the end—trouble is, if we spend too much time deliberating, we will never get the damn thing written.

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