Modifying in Moderation

 After six hours, I finally finished meticulously scouring more than four hundred pages of text for any and all words containing “ly,” editing them out wherever possible.  Shortly I will repeat this task with just, now, then, and some.  One might read this and mistakenly believe I’m waging war against all adverbs.  Truthfully, I adore adverbs; like many of my dependent clauses, I feel they modify my sentences quite nicely.  Unfortunately, in the writing world adverbs have become the redheaded stepchild of parts of speech.  They’re the equivalent to exclamation points in punctuation–to be avoided at all costs!!!

            Examining the previous paragraph, it’s easy to see that we use adverbs frequently in our writing as well as our speech.  So what is it about these modifiers that have English teachers, agents, and critics with their panties in a bundle?  The claim is that adverbs lead to sloppy writing.  I buy this–to a point.  There’s no excuse for describing a character as “very tired” when one could use “exhausted.”  And I scolded myself for repeating  “looked quickly” in my own draft when I was well aware better words existed: glanced, flitted, darted, or peeked, perhaps?  Sometimes writers use adverbs because they’re too lazy to think of or learn a more precise verb or adjective or don’t want to take the time or increase their word count by adding a longer description of an action.  But just as often, adverbs are necessary.

            One of my favorite authors, J. K. Rowling, has been criticized by reviewers and fellow writers for over-using adverbs, particularly after dialogue tags.  She loves telling us Mr. Malfoy spoke coldly (COS, 52) or Ron sharply (DH, 392).  The critics complain this breaks the golden rule of “show, don’t tell.”  The dialogue itself and/or the character’s actions or reactions should inform the reader of the character’s tone.  I’m sure this is often true, especially with less skilled writers, but there are times when writers need to cut to the chase.  Fantasy novels, in particular, already require tremendous amounts of description in order to create a believable world.  There isn’t always room to describe each reaction.  So why not forgo the dialogue qualifier altogether? Because there are times when the words alone can be read numerous ways.  Think of how often we become upset over an email only to later speak with the person and discover we misread the writer’s tone?  The gurus would have us clarify through actions or facial expressions.  Great, I’m all for the occasional raised brow, gnawed bottom lip, or narrowed eyes.  But there are times that won’t cut it.  Writers are supposed to be considerate of their readers.  I push the boundaries of this enough by requiring my readers to use oxygen masks after reading a compound-complex sentence riddled with dependent clauses.  I’m not about to cause them facial paralysis from contorting their faces in order to determine how my characters may have looked or felt while speaking.  If I can cut out a line of awkward description simply by using “sarcastically” or “sardonically,” I’ll do it.  If some critic wants to call me sloppy for it, hell, I’ll gladly keep Joanne company.  Afterall, one of Rowling’s critics scorned the billionaire author for using an adverb in the title of her final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (“Deathly Adverbs”, Boston.com).  Perhaps I should graciouslyinvite him to join my seventh grade language arts class, where he could possibly learn the difference between an adjective and an adverb, so the next time he lambastes an author, he won’t look quite so asinine.

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