Monday, July 30, 2012

Adverbs Aweigh; or Cleaner Drafts

    If you've been reading my posts for awhile, you have probably noticed that I write a lot, as in my posts are long. I throw everything but the kitchen sink into my first drafts. Sometimes, three drafts
later, the kitchen sink is still there. I cut and cut and cut...and my blogs are still too long (in my opinion.)

    Let's face it;  I'm wordy.

    For a long time, I suffered from what I call The Nancy Drew Syndrome.  I read a ton of Nancy Drew mysteries as a kid, if for no other reason than they were sold just about everywhere.  One hundred and twenty-five volumes later, I had absorbed that style of writing.  Lots of adverbs, lots of substitutions for the word "said."  Nancy rarely just "said" something; she exclaimed, proclaimed, complained, and maintained.  If she "said" something, you could count on their being adverb after it.  These are also called Tom Swifties, since the Tom Swift books were another product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
You could always count on Nancy (or Tom) to "retort thoughtfully" or "exclaim merrily."

   On top of my predilection for adverbs, I was also a big fan of the adjective. As kids, our teachers urged us toward "colorful" writing. My thesaurus and I were best buddies.  Why use one word, when you could you use three or four? (Especially if the assignment had a required word count!)  As an adult I learned that "colorful" writing really did have a color. . .purple.  I was writing purple prose. Eggplant purple. You get the picture.


   I was reminded of my own faults when I was working with my Young Writer's Workshop students this summer.  These kids were smart and creative, but there was something oddly familiar and off about
their writing.

   Oh yeah, right. Wordy.  Purple.

   Like any writer, these kids fought to keep every one of their precious words.  They were good words, weren't they?  They were descriptive, weren't they?  Why should they take them out?

   I would have to go through "the back door" to sell them on revision.

   I think I made them believers in spare writing after the following exercise.
Writer's Workout
    Select one page of a story (preferably one without a lot of dialog). Rewrite it without any adjectives or adverbs. Read it out loud.  Does it still make sense?  Is there an adjective that is essential to the story?
Ask yourself, "If I had to pay a hundred dollars to use this word, would I still do it?" Sometimes, you
just have to spend that imaginary hundred dollars.

    Does the writing sound dull without your adverbs?  My guess is that you were leaning on those adverbs instead of using more descriptive verbs.  For instance, "I walked slowly" could become "I
trudged/dragged/crept/crawled/limped etc, depending on context.

   My students discovered that not only did their pared down versions sounded better, it also amped up the tension, and improved the pacing.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Linda at teacherdance said...

I love the pun, 'adverbs aweigh'. May I borrow for use with colleagues. It is great-may also do some good with that purple prose!

Jules said...

Wow! I love this post and need it. I'll be practicing life without adverb in my writing next week. Thanks you. Cheers, Jules

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

I love this Writing Workout, Mary Ann. I might just have to steal it. Thanks!

steve warner said...

I think I will definitely get benefit from your content, especially writing without the use of adverbs.I really like it.