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10:28 am: Wright's Writing Corner: The Adverb Is Dead. Long Live the Adverb.

Guest Blog this week: the charming Charles Grey weighs in for the Heming Way: 

The best new piece of advice on writing I know of comes from William Goldman via David Morrell’s book Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing.  The whole book is invaluable – it’s the only one I’ve read all the way through and then immediately flipped back to chapter one and read again – but this particular bit is a $20,000 lotto ticket.  In the chapter on structure, Morrell says something to the effect that if the pace of a chapter seems to be lagging, go back and chop off the beginning.  Probably the last paragraph, too.  So just for fun, a couple of weeks ago I opened up an unsuccessful piece of fiction from a few years back and did the necessary surgery.  Instant improvement.

 But does this apply to writing anything more than thrillers?  Are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules likewise only good for people who want to write like Elmore Leonard?  Just what the hell is wrong with adverbs, anyway?

 Goldman, Leonard, and Morrell’s advice is all about eliminating the unnecessary, and so are Leonard’s rules.  The ten rules are an essential starting place, no matter what sort of prose you want to master in the end.  Just like the rules of grammar, you have to understand them and use them before you can break them.  So learn them.  Write without adverbs.  Eliminate all speech tags except for "said.” (Maybe there's a special dispensation for "asked.")  Streamline description.  Write short declarative sentences.  These are all a means to an end.  That end is clarity, and clarity is essential to all writing.

Bad writing, fuzzy and dull writing, comes from laziness.  Laziness tempts you to reach for the first word that comes to mind instead of making yourself strain your authorial muscles to hammer out the perfect phrase.  Adverbs indicate lazy writing.  Adverbs are deadly because they attach themselves like lampreys to commonplace verbs, and suck the life out of the search for powerful, precise verbs. Likewise with attention-getting speech tags, which take the place of dialog that is true to the way people really talk.


Now, it would be a dull world if everyone sounded like Leonard or Hemmingway and all we turned out was screenplays. (I wish I could remember who said, "Read all the Hemingway you can get your hands on to get the Faulkner out of your system. Then read all the Faulkner you can to get rid of the Hemingway.") I’ll repeat myself: the rules are only a tool.  Use the rules until they become habitual.  Once that happens, you’ll have the awareness and judgment you need to begin using the forbidden items again.  The difference will be that then you’ll be able to use them where they’ll add to your prose instead of weakening it.  (Myself, I still wouldn’t ever begin a story with the weather, but maybe you could make it work.)  If you can turn out prose that's as lean and stripped as a skinned rabbit, you also know what to do when it's time to start putting the flourishes back in.  Once adverbs and the like become tools instead of crutches, you can build the most elaborate cathedral of words that you like.  But this time your cathedral will be precise and sunlit in its detail, and not a shapeless grey mass whose complexities only serve to confuse.

Here are some examples of clear writing.  First up, a bit from the beginning of a Robert E. Howard story.  Howard is no Pulitzer winner, but the man knew how to turn out vivid prose. 

The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hooves of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished as all the struggling, shining lines converged inward like the spokes of a glittering wheel to the spot where the last survivor still waged unequal strife.

 That day Conan, King of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of his chivalry cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity.  With five thousand knights he had crossed the south-eastern border of Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadowlands of Ophir, to find his former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, drawn up against him with the hosts of Strabonus, King of Koth.  Too late he had seen the trap.  All that a man might do he had done with his five thousand cavalrymen against thirty thousand knights, archers and spearmen of the conspirators.

This is pure genre fiction, and genre fiction is a place where bad writing breeds monsters.  But notice how sparing Howard is with his adjectives.  He uses no adverbs at all.  The verbs and nouns are doing all the work.  Howard’s prose plunges us into the battle without the words getting in the way.

Next up is the opening paragraph from A Simple Plan by Scott Smith.  We’re still in the country of genre fiction, but on the frontier where we can see the land of “literature” just over the hills. 

My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married.  They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle.  My father was killed instantly, decapitated by the hood of his car, but my mother, miraculously, survived.  She lived for a day and a half more, hooked up to machines in the Delphia Municipal Hospital, her neck and back broken, her heart leaking blood into her chest.

 The adjectives are almost invisible here, mostly just adjectival nouns.  The prose is indeed stripped clean, Leonard-style.  But we get a substantial amount of information in just three sentences, and we’re immediately drawn into the story.  And look at this – not just one, but two of those forbidden adverbs in the middle sentence.  Here the adverbs are what the prose needs to evoke the fictive dream.  Scott knows exactly what he’s doing.

The last example comes from the hand of a master magician of writing, Franz Kafka.  The Castle opens like this: 

It was late in the evening when K arrived.  The village was deep in snow.  The castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.  On a wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

These sentences are as unadorned as the start of a 100mph thriller, but despite their simplicity, we stop to savor them, drawn in effortlessly into Kafka’s fictive dream.  (I love how Word wants me to correct the passive voice in the third sentence.)  Not many of us have the power to do what Kafka can do, but this shows that stripped down writing is still capable of creating a masterpiece.

Now I must go back and clean up some subordinate clauses and bring forth better verbs.


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Date:April 1st, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)

I wish I could remember who said, "Read all the Hemingway you can get your hands on to get the Faulkner out of your system. Then read all the Faulkner you can to get rid of the Hemingway."

I believe I have run across something like that in a how-to-write book, but it was the advice given by a teacher. Now, if only I could remember the book. And whether it was a preface written by a student of the book's author.

For some reason, John Gardner pops to mind, but I wouldn't buy the rent money on it.
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 12:17 am (UTC)
Yes, according to http://www.keyholemagazine.com/interview/writers-respond/andrew-zornoza, it's John Gardner to Raymond Carver.
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 04:49 am (UTC)
And -- it has the precise quote. I knew something was wrong with it (she says, safely beyond contradiction 0:).

Read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and then read all of the Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of your system.
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Date:April 1st, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
It’s nonsense to say that Howard uses no adverbs. Just from the two paragraphs quoted:

All is an adverb in the phrase all over the plain.
Inward is an adverb in shining lines converged inward.
Still is an adverb in still waged unequal strife.
Up is an adverb in drawn up against him.
Late is an adverb in Too late he had seen the trap; and too is another adverb modifying late.

Every one of these adverbs is essential to the story as it is told; you can demonstrate this to yourself by removing each one of them and seeing how it alters the meaning. But there are no adequate substitutes for these words, because as much as you may make a fetish of ‘powerful, precise verbs’, no language has a precise verb for every purpose. In particular, the English language is rich in phrasal verbs compounded from a simple ‘commonplace’ verb and a preposition used adverbially, as in drawn up, which has a meaning that cannot be derived analytically from the meanings of its constituent words. These phrasal verbs are idioms, and like all idioms they defy such analysis; and their adverbs are inseparable from them.

There are, it is true, no words in the passage from Howard ending in -ly; but that does not mean that there are no adverbs, only that you have failed to spot them. I can only put this down to three possible causes: ignorance of what an adverb is, or inattention to the text quoted, or reckless haste in generalization. None of those things does a writer credit, and each one of them is a worse check upon the development of the writer’s skill than the use of any number of adverbs.
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Date:April 1st, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
I think he means ly words. Those are the words that are under attack, for the most part.
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Date:April 1st, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
Very true. Then, after all, I don't think anyone has ever managed to turn a passage purple by use of "up", "all", "inward" and the like.

More precision in the attack might be advisable.
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Date:April 1st, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
By the way, the last example is not from Kafka, who wrote in German and Czech, but from an English translator of The Castle. If you want to make a point about Kafka’s style, you had better see how his prose reads in the original.

Jules Verne was long thought by English-speaking people to be a shabby prose stylist, because until recently his prose had been traduced by shabby translations; on the other hand, one of the Golden Age SF writers (I think it may have been van Vogt) had an undeserved reputation in France for fine writing, because his French translator was a better stylist than the author himself, and unscrupulous enough to improve upon the original as he went along. Moral of the story: You can’t judge an author’s prose style by translations.
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)
Let's see:

"Es war spät abends, als K. ankam. Das Dorf lag in tiefem Schnee. Vom Schloßberg war nichts zu sehen, Nebel und Finsternis umgaben ihn, auch nicht der schwächste Lichtschein deutete das große Schloß an. Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke, die von der Landstraße zum Dorf führte, und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor."

Not bad, not especially interesting, as is often the case with the simple style. Since it doesn't use Latin-derived words, it is even simpler and less interesting than the English version.On the other hand, iIt is certainly very appropriate for its place - in short, it works very well as far as the style goes.

It becomes interesting only on the second reading, when you know the symbolic meaning of the book.

I am also not quite sure that the translation is exact. I would prefer "seeming emptiness", or "apparent emptiness" to "illusory emptiness". It is very important to be precise here, because this fragment has a very precise theological meaning.


Main Entry: il·lu·so·ry
Pronunciation: \i-ˈlüs-rē, -ˈlüz-; -ˈlü-sə-, -zə-\
Function: adjective
Date: circa 1631

based on or producing illusion : deceptive


illusory implies a false impression based on deceptive resemblance or faulty observation, or influenced by emotions that prevent a clear view <an illusory sense of security
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
Wow. Gee! Thanks!
Date:April 1st, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)


Weather as a story starter works really well in Russian lit, if you're reading it in Russian. Russians believe in weather like a religion. They are really good about writing about it, just like early Irish hermit monks were good at poetry about it. Both groups always had weather right in their faces. Most modern writers don't believe in weather, so it's not nearly as effective.

I love translation, and I'm fine with reading translations. But the product's never the thing itself. A translation is an alternative world fanfic with the premise is "What if this author wrote in English?"
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 03:43 am (UTC)
Echoing the Kafka comment. People often forget that authors write in languages other than English, and it is then translated.

Anyways. In light of all this Hemingway talk, I decided to do some scanning of Pride and Prejudice, which has maintained, as I understand it, a rank of one of the 10 favorite books of England's ladies since its publishing.

Conveniently, the whole thing is online at http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pridprej.html

From glancing through, it seems clear (especially in the first chapter), that the proscription against things other than "said" does not apply. She does a fair amount of telling instead of showing (see the description of Mr. Darcy in the third chapter, for instance). Her adverbs do seem rather sparing, though.

Yet, I feel like this "start with bare and work up" is from a school of literary thought that thinks every passage, every sentence must work to elicit emotion from the reader. There are times, instead, that I feel some sentences must work as architecture and structure--they may not elicit pure emotion, but work to move the story and characters along. And the emotion and reflection comes not from the style, but from a higher level, in the story and how the characters interact.

Assuming that last paragraph made any sort of sense.
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Date:April 2nd, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
Interesting about Pride and Prejudice!

I think that the point of the Heming Way is to have a page turner. To avoid "speedbumps" that slow the reader down or distract them.

But that is not everyone's goal. Some people are concerned with the mood of the words, the poetry of them, in which case, getting just the right ones matter. ;-)
Date:April 2nd, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
I think Austen gets away with this because she treats Meryton like it's a person. So instead of being baldly told that Darcy is proud, we get Darcy's pride funneled through the indignant reaction of Meryton. This gives us a huge amount of contextual information about both Darcy and Meryton.

That she uses this device sparingly makes it more effective. I can only think of three brief instances off the top of my head. Meryton's reaction to Darcy that you mentioned, Meryton's reaction to Wickham's story, and Meryton's reaction to Lydia's elopement.

It's unique to P&P as far as I can tell. I can't name any of the other small towns from Austen, much less describe them, but Meryton is very familiar.
Date:April 5th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)

Thanks all.

Sorry it took me some time to check in on my guest piece. (Very gracious of you, Jagi.)

Thanks to jeff2001 for sourcing the Gardner quote. I was fairly certain that it was him, but I resisted the temptation to go back to The Art of Fiction to look for it, as I would have ended up reading most if not all of the whole book once again. (I rendered the quote from memory more precisely in my first draft, but was then seduced by the greater symmetry of my version.)

I'll also gladly take my lumps from superversive regarding Howard's use of adverbs. I don't think that anyone has an issue with using utility words like "all" or or "up." It is, as Jagi said, those -ly adverbs that are the true leaches. So I'll admit to being imprecise, but I'll deny all charges of ignorance or inattention. Regardless, my greater point still stands. In lesser hands the elephants would have trumpeted triumphantly.

I'll also stand by my judgment that the Kafka we have in English reflects the feel of the German, though of course it can't fully reproduce it, and I don't know German nearly well enough to be sure. It's also true that for most translations I simply don't have the knowledge of the source language to make any judgment at all. Witness the Fagels translation of the Illiad. It's a vivid read, but I have no way of knowing whether its rough, Anglo-Saxon texture sounds at all like what the first audiences would have heard in the Greek equivalent of mead halls. I'll dissent somewhat from baudin. I don't find Kafka's language, whether in German or English, at all uninteresting, despite its simplicity. German hasn't had the Latinate make-over that English has, so I suspect that German readers wouldn't notice the lack of "ink horn" words, words that warn English readers that they're in the presence of Good Writing.
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Date:April 5th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks all.

Thank you so much, Charles. Really sweet of you to write the post.

I also love John Gardner's book. It was the first book on writing I read that I thought was helpful. What stuck in my mind the most was his description of becoming stuck because he did not know if his character would take a treat off a hostess's tray at a party and he realized that the character needed work. But the whole book was enjoyable.
Date:April 5th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks all.

I agree; Gardner is awesome. This time I went to shelves to get his exact words. Speaking of his time editing a book with Lewis Dunlap, who he calls an "infuriatingly stubborn perfectionist," Gardner says: "Gradually I came to feel as unwilling as he was to let a sentence stand if the meaning was not as was not as unambiguously visible as a grizzly bear in a brightly lit kitchen." (On Becoming a Novelist, 1983, p. 19)

Clarity is what matters. I do love tight, transparent prose, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everything has to be a page-turner. Short declarative sentences don't guarantee an effortless read, and rich prose that invites you linger is wonderful. But there's a major difference between slowing down to savor the scenery, and slowing down because you have to squint and go back to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That's why I advocate following Leonard's rules (or similar advice from Morrell, King, et. al.). Once you've learned them, then go on if you like and build yourself a two-page sentence describing rain hardening to sleet during a November storm. At least your readers will be able to see it clearly.
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Date:April 6th, 2010 12:04 am (UTC)

Re: Thanks all.

Really nicely put.
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