Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/20/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
A correspondent on a ListServ I used to attend regularly wrote that she was searching for the name of “a bit of editing software that would highlight all adverbs if you typed search adverbs or all verbs if you typed search verbs.”
Hackles rose on my neck. Here we are, back to the topic that won’t die: the dumbing down of America.
This is a writer’s slippery slope.
Searching for, finding, installing and using software that highlights all adverbs put the writer a tempting single click away from deleting all adverbs. And that’s just plain silly. I strongly advise against such software, even if you can find it.
If you believe perhaps you’re using too many adverbs, follow these two simple guidelines. The third point is a tidbit of important parenthetical information (and no, parenthetical information doesn’t have to be enclosed in parentheses):
- Never use an adverb in a tag line (the bit of he said, she said narrative that doesn’t make sense by itself and is most often attached to the dialogue with a comma). If the narrator has described the scene well enough, you won’t need adverbs in tag lines.
- Use only strong action verbs in your narrative sentences. This will cause all unnecessary adverbs and adjectives to fall away of their own accord. If you use only strong action verbs, you will consciously select only necessary adverbs and adjectives to modify the picture you’re placing in the reader’s mind. Again, this will occur naturally. It’s as easy as falling off a stack of platitudes.
- Despite what some folks say, not every word that ends in “ly” is an adverb. For example, the widely misused “likely” is an adjective that is synonymous with “probable,” not an adverb that’s synonymous with “probably.”
English just isn’t a one-rule-fits-all language. DESPITE Mark Twain, who once wrote that when you find an adverb you should kill it, and DESPITE the felonious intent of wannabe writing instructors who tell their charges to use no more than three (or five or some other arbitrary number) of exclamation points per page.
I’ve heard similar advice concerning the use of em dashes (long dashes) and colons and semicolons. And of course we’ve all been taught that hunting season never closes on state-of-being verbs or “had” or gerunds (many alleged writing instructors call gerunds “ing words”) because those three word-types cause passive voice.
Uhh, no, they don’t, Grasshopper.
State-of-being verbs by themselves do not cause passive voice, and neither the word “had” nor those pesky “ing words” are within a thousand mles of having anything to do with passive voice.
Although it’s true that adverbs can clutter up your writing, some adverbs in some situations are necessary. And “necessary” is the key word. See item 3 above.
The secret to good usage is not to get rid of “all” adverbs, state-of-being verbs, instances of “had,” adjectives, or anything else, but to get rid of any unnecessary adverbs, state-of-being verbs, adjectives, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, and dialogue.
It is the Human Mind (yours) that should determine which words and sentences and paragraphs remain and in what sequence.
Okay, here are a few guidelines (flexible, not “rules”) you can apply to your own writing:
- The state-of-being verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. When one of these is used in conjunction with a “by phrase” (e.g., The pizza was delivered by Harvey) you’ve written a passive construction (or passive voice). Passive constructions, unless you’re writing a service manual for a vacuum cleaner, are bad.
- Some state-of-being verbs are necessary. To describe the size or relative size (the state of being) of a city, you have to use a state-of-being verb. But don’t allow your narrator to describe the state of being of a character. (Don’t let him say “John was angry” or “John was livid” or “Joaquin was frightened” etc.)
- Use Your Mind. Despite what your father said, it’s a wonderful thing. The human mind is the original spell checker, the original grammar checker, and the original verb and adverb-finder thingy.
- As part of using your mind, Read Your Work Aloud. If it sounds good to you, it will sound good in the reader’s mind. If you hit a spot that sounds awkward or rough, that’s because it’s, you know, awkward or rough. Fix it.
Remember that you’re only in charge until the reader gets hold of your work. Only You can decide what to leave in or omit from your writing, but only the reader gets to determine whether it’s necessary or distracting.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
Note: I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.