Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Pernicious Adverbs

Adverb: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb.

Using adverbs is a mortal sin – Elmore Leonard

The road to hell is paved with adverbs – Stephen King

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me – Mark Twain

You learn what you need to know in the process of doing, and one of the things I’m learning is that the use of adverbs is not considered “good” writing. I’ve been happily grinding away, having just finished my seventh short story, and I’m only now beginning to understand how to edit what I’ve written – I’m going back over it with a more critical eye.

I do seem to like my adverbs, so the brutal process of pruning them out has begun. But it turns out their usage is not quite so black and white (that shouldn’t be a surprise since nothing else in life is either).

I’m going back and checking some highly-praised fiction and memoirs I’ve read recently, and lo and behold, there are indeed adverbs being used – but their use is pretty minimal (see how I slipped that adverb in? And it doesn’t even end with -ly). The hard part is figuring out if taking them out weakens the writing (it’s supposed to make it cleaner and stronger). For example, here’s a sentence from my first short story “The Question Mark Bridge.”

Burr had been angry his whole life – angry at his alcoholic father who abused, belittled, and beat him as a child, angry at his mother for not loving and protecting him, angry at his teachers for failing him (both literally and figuratively), angry at the other kids for ostracizing and making fun of him when he was younger, and ultimately angry at the world for his sorry lot in life, one that he felt he didn’t deserve.”

There’re three adverbs here: “literally, figuratively” & “ultimately.” But the first two point out the duality of his teacher’s failure, and the last explains how his anger at all the previous insults added up to being angry at the whole world. I like the sentence and the adverbs seem justified… or are they? Taking the first two out weakens the idea, and taking out the third makes it less clear that the culmination of what came before led to his anger at the world. (Note: I guess ultimately can come out).

This 2nd draft editing stuff is harder than the 1st draft of actually creating and writing the goddamn story… (note to self: actually? really? Come on.)