Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My Pet Peeve: Adverbs

My pet writing peeve is my own dangerous propensity to rely on cheap adverbs, which I consider the linguistic equivalent of junk food.

It happens, from time to time, that I find myself tempted to stick cheap adverbs into my fiction. When that temptation arises, I remind myself of Stephen King's admonition to avoid them. Here is the relevant quote from ON WRITING, a marvelous hybrid of memoir and how-to book, and one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time:

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after that... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's—GASP!!—too late.”

Now, Mr. King is an authority I respect, and I hope you will hear him out on this. Of course, I would understand if you preferred not to be lectured about such things. Lectures are no fun, and the older I get, the deeper my own skepticism becomes about hard-and-fast writing "rules." In this case, though, I have to note that King is not promulgating such a rule, but rather stating a useful principle that can guide writers in making good decisions.

Notice that he's not saying one should never use adverbs. (Indeed, he uses three of them in this paragraph, and to good effect.) He's saying we should avoid them, and, by inference, I hear him asking us to make sure they are essential if we do choose to use them.

I find my prose tends to be strong, disciplined, and specific when it avoids adverbs. Showing, dramatizing, embodying the action in question tends to deliver better results than me telling people how I, the writer, think the action is unfolding. For instance: "Your lawn is teeming with dandelions" seems preferable to me to "Your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions." Take out any two of King's silly adverbs, and mine will still work better. Yes, "better," which I just used, is an adverb. Note that it's the only way to get the idea across. It's not a cheap, pointless, easy-to-work-around-with-a-basic-rewrite adverb, like "totally."

The urge to use cheap adverbs can feel overpowering. I don't know why. If I fight the urge off, though, and find another way to express the idea, the sentence improves.

There are any number of adverbs to be found in Mr. King's fiction, even in books that he completed after ON WRITING. And there are plenty of great writers I admire who rely on adverbs more than King does. (Dickens and Rowling come to mind.) But for me, the operating principle Stephen King proposes remains a sound one. When in doubt, rip that dandelion out of the soil .... or don't plant it in the first place ... so something better can grow. If you do decide to leave one growing in your lawn, make sure you know why you made that decision.

Some people like dandelions, of course, and I realize it's impossible to get rid of all of them. Not even Stephen King can manage that. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the effort. Anyway, I like the way the lawn looks when I do.

This is part of a blog hop about writing peeves. My dear friend Richard Gibney tagged me.

Thank you, Rich. He was tagged by Larysia Woropay.

I hereby tag for this blog hop Rich's friend Carissa Ann Lynch, who is the author of the Flocksdale Files trilogy, Horror High series, Grayson’s Ridge, This Is Not About Love, 13: An Anthology of Horror and Dark Fiction, and Dark Legends: A Collection of 20 Paranormal and Urban Fantasy Novels. She resides in Floyds Knobs, Indiana with her husband and three children. Besides her family, her greatest love in life is books.

I was supposed to tag a second person for this blog hop, but I wimped out. So I tag myself again. Watch this space for another pet peeve of mine: writers who wimp out when it comes to tagging other writers for blog hops.