Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Those Dreadful, Awful, -ly words

I've been wanting to write this for a while. Modern writing gurus have gone to great lengths to help would be writers improve their writing by giving them "rules" to write by. Break these rules at your peril. Follow these rule—at your peril. (Wait for expected double take).

Okay, all joking aside, the gurus (as I shall call them for the sake of brevity) would not have made these rules if they didn't have a point. The one I want to cover in this post is their objection to the adverb. What is an adverb? I will paraphrase my Apple dictionary on my computer.

An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies an adjective, verb, other adverb, or word grouping, usually expressing a relation in place, time, circumstance, manner, degree, etc.

More often than not, adverbs end in -ly. For example, quickly, slowly, angrily, and so forth. There are, or course, exceptions like very, almost, often, and always. Checking on the internet, there are also adjectives that end in -ly. I'll save those for another post…maybe.

When I was working with an agent, he advised me to get rid of all my -ly words. "Awful -ly words" where his exact words. The problem with them is that they are overused. I don't just mean they are used a lot, but used when they don't need to be used. So, does that mean they should never be used? No, and many gurus will say this.

Going back to overuse. If you write fiction, as I do, you deal with a lot of dialogue. When a person speaks, you want your reader to know the nuances of how something is said. Let me provide an example. Suppose you have a man who has just been shot in the shoulder.

You might be tempted to write: "You'll pay for this," he said angrily.

What's the problem with that. When you think about it, getting shot is not a good thing. Soft tissue is definitely torn. The joint may be permanently damage. Even if it's "just a flesh wound," it's going to hurt. I doubt this person is going to be cheerful. So "angrily" is redundant. Therefore, you may remove it.

Now, might you put an adverb in? As a point of fact (I like that expression for some reason), yes. "Angrily" is obvious. Suppose you want to catch your audience off guard? Suppose the man is a raving lunatic? Suppose he knows something the shooter doesn't.

"You'll pay for this," he said cheerfully.

And that's when his pet saber-toothed tiger disembowels the shooter.

"Well and good," you say. "So how do I deal with them."

If your writing the first draft, use the adverbs freely. Many gurus suggest this as trying to edit while writing the draft is going to slow the writer down. There is some truth to that, though if you are aware, you might be tempted to try to fix it as you write. I think the gurus are right in this case. Don't slow down. Keep writing. Deal with them when you edit.

So you are at the editing stage. As you go through your editing (I suggest several edits.) use the -ly as a beacon that you want to take a closer look at something. When you find one, ask yourself the following.

1. Does the context make this redundant. If no, leave it. If yes, delete it. Alternatively, you can change it and explore a new aspect of the character in question.

2. Can it be said without the adverb. If no, leave it. If yes, try various ways to say what you said without using the adverb. This can lead to subquestions like "is this overly wordy?" If it doesn't look too bad, go with it. If it looks wordy, go back to the -ly word.

3. Do you really need this? Again, I am thinking of redundancy. However, you should also ask, "Is it important for my audience to know how this was done or said?"

Another useful trick is to make sure that no more than two adverbs appear on a page. As with anything in writing, each author must develop his or her own voice. This is what makes one author stand out from another, and it's important for an author to stand out from the others. If all author's slavishly followed rules (i.e. no -ly words), it would be much more difficult to develop and author voice. On occasion, you may decide to leave three of for adverbs on a page. You may decide redundancy delivers a certain effect you want. Just keep in mind, over use will make it less potent when you do use it. 

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