Damn the adverbs: Vigorous writing really and truly is concise

Every writer that ever worked for me from back in my editor days would have paid to watch a recent meeting I had with literary advisor. I brought the whole gamut of my work to an Italian cafe, novels young and old, a spiritual memoir, a narrative non-fiction proposal a little book I might self-publish for the hey of it. Within ten minutes the entirety of it lay in pike of wreckage amid the coffee cups and silverware. Beads of sweat danced on my bald dome.

My friend looked up and shrugged, “Vigorous writing is concise.”

He might as well have said, “Karma, bitch.”

I could hear the psychic cheer rise from columnists and freelancers and editorial writers and reporters who worked once for me.

My friend had a couple of complaints. My openings were too crafty–“Remember what Samuel Goldwyn said,” he told me. ‘Want to send a message, use Western Union.'”– and I used too many adverbs. Example after example hammered home his point, which was I’d gotten lazy with my prose.

I blame these blogs. I write too many words to fill too many spaces rather than spending appropriate time writing great words to complete one great book. The volume of words pays the bills and builds “the brand,” both of which are essential to my career as an author. But… but… and this is crucial… nothing can take the place of the craft of writing excellent prose.

I’ve strayed from my craft. I knew I needed to improve my openings. I couldn’t even put up a fight. Though I knew he was right also about the adverbs, I thought but… but… I do love me my adverbs. Yes, they are telling (as opposed to showing) and yes, they are redundant, but they are also quirky and stylistic and lend a bit of a unique voice. I think about adverbs as pops of color. They are the vase of fresh-cut flowers in a mostly white room or the purple pocket square in the grey suit. Even Stephen King, the Fort Sumter of the war on adverbs likened them to a dandelion: one looks kind of pretty, he admitted.

But a suit of purple is a clown suit (or a Joker costume if you have the Kiss-like face paint to match). A sea of cut flowers is a store not a living room. A dandelion let loose turns a lawn into a field, not a lawn.

I confess, the adverbs have run amok in the lawn of my prose of late. I’m grateful my advisor cared enough to set me straight.

As I walked home through the vibrant bustle of North Beach, I recalled my enjoyment when a frustrated writer would come into my office and lament my insistence that his 900-word column come in at 600 or that the five-graph, artsy lede had been smooshed back into one clear graph I could understand. They’d argue with the zeal of a televangelist while I’d sit from behind my desk, half-smile on my face, giving every appearance of listening. Then I’d turn as they spoke, reach to my shelf and pull off the copy of Strunk and White. While they’d continue to lament my rigidity, my inanity, my tyranny, I’d flip to right around page 38–under the heading “Omit needless words”–and begin to read my favorite paragraph on the writer’s task:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Most of the time they would have left my office before I finished reading.

Adverbs are unnecessary nine times out of ten, or if Stephen King is to believe, 1,999 out of 2,000. But, as he wrote in his great book On Writing, “I deny that.” Sometimes adverbs do tell, in the meaning of Strunk and White. They pop. King is correct, they are dandelions that can run amok, but carefully (see, that one is useful) tended, they add to a well-told story. King can’t protest too much. His essay where he fired the oft-recited shots of the war on the adverb contained nearly a dozen adverbs (even if some were used ironically), including the reference to dandelions I have referred to here:

“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.”

On writing I’d no more challenge King than I would Strunk and White, but it seems we may not be too far apart. Nevertheles, I’ve spent several hours rooting out the adverbs. If any of this really, truly, surely applies to you, I recommend a simple fix:

Use the find tool to search for ly. Read each (skipping the ones where the ly is not adverb). First, try to delete them. If you feel you lose something, try to show the meaning the sentence before so the narrative shows the descriptive without the adverb. If that fails, try to rewrite the sentence. If none look better, leave them, but ask someone with a firm appreciation for Strunk and White to give it a read. I bet they find more that can go away, because in the end, all evidence on this blog to the contrary, vigorous writing is really and truly concise.

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