After 35 years as a technical writer, I am discovering many aspiring writers secretly — maybe not so secretly — want to write user guides. While invoking a glamor by calling their work fiction, their truest heart’s desire is to write dry narrative. We, the readers, should fill descriptive gaps from the overflowing richness of our imaginations.
If description is not the author’s job, who needs the author? If I can find all that imagery in my head, why should I read your book?
A wholesale willingness to discard pieces of our language appalls me. I’m not looking for the leanest, cleanest text. I love description. I revel in complexity. I adore rich language, word play, emotional depth, color and texture. I want my authors to carry me to unexplored and previously undreamt of realms. I wish to be transported on wings woven of words, to undertake soaring flights I would never achieve on my own. In my opinion, that is an author’s job. If not that, then what?
I deplore the overuse of any grammatical structure, but to suggest the complete elimination of adverbs and modifiers? Much of the beauty of the English language is the huge vocabulary available to us. And unlike German, Russian, and many Romance languages, English grammar is flexible, offering a wide variety of constructions. You aren’t locked into any rigid forms. You can place modifiers as you please and modify verbs, nouns and just about anything else.
The quote from Stephen King “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” has been tossed around a lot.
But I am sure it was not intended to suggest we eliminate adverbs. Read anything Stephen King has written and discover he is one of the richest users of English, as per the following clip from 11/23/63. Count, if you like, the number of adverbs and adverbial clauses. If you can.
No author would advocate banning any part of speech. King’s admonition urges you to avoid overusing adverbs, not eliminating them because if you were to read a few lines further, he admits that ultimately, like everyone else he uses whatever parts of speech are right and most importantly, ensure that the reader understands what he means. Stephen King is not a great writer because his prose is so lean. He is a great writer because of its richness and creativity, the poetry of his words. Lean? Hardly.
Books need to be engaging, interesting. Writers need to love words. Everything ever written about writing is no more than a guideline. To write well you need to hear the music of words, the flow of them. You need to know when your narrative needs to be spare and when you need a glorious outpouring of rhythm and poetry. No one can teach you to write. It is a gift. You can learn to write better, but if you have no inherent talent for words, no amount of hard work will turn you into an author.
You can get away with virtually anything but if you bore your readers, they will never forget or forgive. And if by chance I’m reviewing your book? I won’t be counting your adverbs. Trust me, if I even notice parts of speech, you’ve already failed. Dismally (yes, it’s an adverb … cope).
Ultimately the only thing that matters is how your story and characters resonate with readers. You can create the most perfect text ever put on paper, but unless it’s interesting, readable, entertaining, gripping … I don’t care and neither will anyone else.
Worry less about style. Worry more about content.
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- R.I.P. Adverb (teepee12.com)
- Stephen King’s “On Writing”: Passive Voice and Adverb Free (usedbooksinclass.com)
- How is it I just learned about conjunctive adverbs (ask.metafilter.com)
- Suddenly, Adverbs (and Advice) (enleewrites.wordpress.com)
- My 12 Step Program for Edits (theindieexchange.com)