Thursday, June 26, 2014

Delia Latham: The Danger in Dandelions

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. 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.
—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Sometimes in my dreams, huge monsters shaped like L’s and Y’s chase me down book-lined streets and into a dark, creepy cemetery. Over its gate I glimpse a sign, painted in blood-red printer’s ink: Kill All Adverbs. Bury Them Here.
Well, maybe I’m stretching it a bit…but isn’t it true that adverbs have taken a great deal of flak in the writing community? In elementary school, we were encouraged to embellish our little stories and essays with “descriptive” words called adjectives and adverbs. They were touted as useful in making our writing more vibrant…prettier, if you will.

Now the poor adverb is on every Wanted poster in the world of writing. Literary bounty hunters are out to get them, at all costs.

This vendetta against adverbs is not a new thing. The revered Mark Twain even pronounced an unequivocal death sentence on them: “If you see an adverb, kill it.”

I’m inclined more toward Stephen King’s way of thinking. Adverbs are like dandelions on the lawn. Who hasn’t picked one of the fluffy weeds, made a wish, and blown its wispy “petals” into the wind? They’re pretty. They’re fun. They make us smile.

Trouble is, those wispy "petals" are actually seed heads. If they’re allowed to grow, they take over, and soon that beautiful lawn is choked out by dandelions. Because no matter how fun, or how pretty, they are still weeds. If we fail to uproot them, they soon become less attractive and more troublesome.

So let’s talk about why adverbs have made for themselves such a nasty reputation.

First, understand that they are not going to completely disappear from your writing. (See what I mean?) But like dandelions, which are pretty and we like seeing them now and then, they will, indeed, multiply if the writer does not maintain complete control. Stop and consider at every spotting of an adverb. Does it need to be there? Could your sentence be stronger without it?

Just as weeds left to spread can often be blamed on a “lazy” owner, adverbs are often a sign of lazy writing. Where you see an “ly” word, most of the time the writer is telling the reader something, rather than showing them. 

For example:

The little one ran quickly to his mother.

It does the job all right…I guess. Nothing is technically wrong with the sentence. We know the child went to his mother and that he wasted no time getting there. But instead of stating a dull, ordinary fact, the writer could have taken the time and made the effort to paint a sweet picture.

A huge smile revealed tiny white teeth and lit a bright love light behind the toddler’s blue irises. He bounce-hopped across the floor toward his mother, chubby legs churning like a wound-up cartoon character.

I like the way Arizona writer Kathleen Ewing sums up adverbs: 

“The reader doesn't want to watch your characters walking quickly or hear them speaking softly. Pick a verb with some starch in its shorts. Make characters jog, march or stride. Make them mumble, mutter or whisper. If you begin with a hairy-legged verb, you won't be tempted to accomplish the action slowly, urgently or hopefully.”
Oh, wait…did you catch that? That secret to active writing? The thing that puts your reader right there with your character, living the story instead of looking on from the sidelines while someone narrates events?

“Begin with a hairy-legged verb.” A strong, descriptive, active verb. That's the secret.

In the example above, my toddler bounce-hopped across the floor, short legs churning… So much more effective than “he ran quickly.”

Most of the time, the adverb adds little or nothing to a sentence—other than an extra word. If I scribble my number at a chance meeting when I’m in a hurry, there’d be no need to state, “She scribbled hurriedly.” The fact that I’m scribbling already implies a rush. If I’m pacing the floor at a tense moment, saying I “paced restlessly” is redundant. The action itself—pacing—implies restlessness. If my son is rushing out the door (he’s late, he’s late, for a very important date!), saying he “raced quickly out the door” adds an unnecessary adverb. If one is racing, it’s a pretty sure bet that he’s in a hurry, and moving as fast as possible.

In summary: Take time to come up with the perfect verb, and it won’t need to be modified by an adverb. Is it easy? Not always. Is it worth the trouble?

You decide. But hurry…you have 'lions on your lawn.


Writers beware: The Danger in Dandelions. @DeliaLatham on Write Right! #writingtips

What do adverbs and dandelions have in common? Find out at Write Right @DeliaLatham.

A dandelion on your lawn. What does it have to do with writing? @DeliaLatham on adverbs. #writingtips

Delia Latham is a born-and-bred California gal, currently living in the beautiful mountain town of Tehachapi with her husband Johnny and a Pomeranian named Boo. She’s a Christian wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend—but above all, she treasures her role as child of the King and heir to the throne of God. She has a “thing” for Dr. Pepper and absolutely loves hearing from her readers.

Contact her at any of the following locations:

Website; blog; Facebook; Twitter; Amazon author page

No comments:

Post a Comment