Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why You Should Shoot Adverbs on Sight

(From time to time it' s important for even the most seasoned writers to get back to basics and practice the craft. Today we're featuring an excerpt written by Mary Jaksch for the highly informative and entertaining Write to Done blog, on a practically painless way to tighten our writing.)

Yes, I'm declaring open season on adverbs. What is an adverb exactly?'s the word I just used: exactly. So I'll cull it and write instead, "What is an adverb?"

An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or a phrase. It answers questions such as 'how', 'when', 'where', or 'how much'. Such details may be important, but we need to understand the dynamics of information versus pace.

Information versus pace
"Pace" identifies the speed at which eaders can devour your text. Long sentences and detailed descriptions slow down the pace. Lean sentences and short paragraphs speed it up. The more detailed information you give, the slower the pace. If you use words that are redundant, the reader may start to skip and even leave.

What does redundancy mean in terms of writing? Test the two definitions I found on the Internet. Which one slows your reading down?

1. Redundancy means words that are superfluous.
2. Redundancy means the superfluity of a linguistic feature due to its predictability within the overall structure.

Just imagine reading a whole article in the style of the second example. I bet you couldn’t click away fast enough!

Now that we’ve got that redundancy thing cleared up, let’s take a look at the implications.

The redundancy test
How do you know when a word is superfluous? It’s simple. If the meaning stays the same without the word, then you’re faced with a ‘superfluity of a linguistic feature’.

He hurriedly scribbled the number down on a pad

In this case the adverb ‘hurriedly’ is superfluous because the word 'scribbling' already implies writing fast. The sentence ‘He scribbled the number down on a pad’ is leaner and stronger.

John got up and walked restlessly to the window.

Here, the word ‘restlessly’ is redundant because the restlessness is already shown in the action.
Some writers like to use not only one, but two adverbs. For example: She really, truly cared for him. In this case, consider culling one of the adverbs, or even both. Here, you would end up with:

She cared for him.

In a recent guest post pitch I found this sentence: As writers it’s normal to jump both mentally and actually from one project to another.

That’s a very athletic sentence … which would benefit from some brutal editing.

Should we let some adverbs live?

(Ah, that is the question! Read the rest of the article at the Write to Done blog. It will be time well spent.)

This excerpt provided with permission of author Mary Jaksch. Thanks, Mary!


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks Jenny. A great reminder of one of those extras writers should take notice of, and which can be cleaned up during the revision process.

Jennifer Rova said...

Recently I learned to use the 'find' button on my word program. Ask it to search for "-ly" words. Fast and easy way to locate those pesky adverbs.

Norm de Ploom said...

I am a fan of adverbs. They set the nuance of the sentence (she cried quietly). However a well chosen verb can do wonders to cut down the number of adverbs a writer uses (she whimpered as she walked out) which doesn't stop the thought train of the reader. I never liked reading German books because the negative is at the end of the sentence. I thought the protagonist was laughing until I can to the end of the sentence and there was the negative