As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.
Sometimes there are no rules.
– Mary Oliver, “THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER” from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
I had a piece critiqued for the first time by the writer’s meetup that I attend. Generally, the feedback was good–validated some things for myself (like I can actually write something that someone else enjoys) and provided a couple of useful things to work on in rewrites.
Someone handed me a print out with line edits that consisted primarily of their circling or underlining the adverbs I used. Not all the adverbs, but all the -ly words. With the exhortation to “watch the adverbs.”
I’m trying to take this particular critique in the most generous way possible: Sometimes I overuse adverbs, and it is a good reminder for me to be more deliberate in how I choose to deploy them.
But then I think about the fact that all the -ly words (and no other adverbs) were circled indiscriminately, and I become incandescent with rage.
So you get another adverb rant.
I’m sorry, but the rule “only bad writers use adverbs” is a TERRIBLE THING to tell (any, but particularly new) writers and is JUST SO WRONG. (Also, just don’t “Only bad writers…” anybody in general. It’s rude and mean.) The adverb ban is one of those common knowledge “laws of writing” that people espouse without stopping to think about why. Just like all of those other absurdly prescriptivist “rules” that people have about writing. (There are rules and then there are “rules.”)
(Also, actually, I’m not sorry.)
THIS IS A PETTY HILL THAT I WILL DIE ON.
Sure, adverbs can be overused (easily, in fact). But so can adjectives. Or other parts of speech. Or grammatical quirks/styles like incomplete clauses. Why must the adverb be so maligned? Sometimes you need them. They modify other parts of speech (mostly verbs), and they do this because there are occasions when those parts of speech need modifying. Sometimes there isn’t a more precise word. Sometimes there is, but you’re using the adverb for a specific effect. Adverbs can change the meaning of the sentence you are writing.
And sure, sometimes you are BEING REDUNDANT (she shouted loudly) and using them unnecessarily. And if that’s the case, release those poor adverbs into the ether and remove them from your writing.
Here’s a quote that sums up why it makes me so mad:
It’s that adverbs are no guiltier than any other part of speech. A noun can be nonsense. A verb can be vague. A preposition can be improper. An adjective can be antiquated. A conjunction can be confusing. Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn’t mean they’re evil. Some—those that help the current move “ceaselessly” at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go “boldly”—are downright great.
– Lily Rothman, “Why I Am Proudly, Strongly, and Happily in Favor of Adverbs,” The Atlantic, Dec. 1, 2011
Being careful and deliberate with using the tools you have in your toolbox is NOT the same thing as outright banning one of the tools for no reason other than “lots of people don’t know how to use this correctly and also once someone told me don’t.”
The only way to get better at using a tool is to gain more experience with it. Read, and pay attention to how your favorite authors use adverbs, to why they do it. Experiment with them, see where they work in your writing and where they don’t. Be conscious and choosy when using them, just like you would with any of the other words you are using.
I kind of hope that I don’t have to rant about adverbs anymore, but I’m sure it’ll come up again.
Remember that in order to recover as an artist, you must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
When I make this point in teaching, I am met by instant, defensive hostility: “But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?”
Yes… the same age you will be if you don’t.
So let’s start.
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Write who you are. Crack open your breastbone, grab your heart from its visceral mooring, and smash it into the page. Give it a few bloody twists just to make sure your heart print is firmly and forever smashed onto the page.
Your stories are you, and you are your stories.
– Chuck Wendig, Damn Fine Story
I’ve read a bunch of writing books. And if I’m going to be honest, I’m going to read a bunch more writing books. In part, it’s because there’s still a part of me that’s looking for the secret even though I know there isn’t one. (Except, write.) (But also, maybe it’s in this other book over here…) But mostly, it’s because I like to read writing books.
I like the memoir-y tomes that talk about the struggling novice writer and the eventual triumph. The ones that meditate on the inner life of writers. The ones that make me think, maybe these are my people.
I like the books that present yet another way to look at structure and plot and character and narrative. Anything to try to help me figure out my own thoughts on those things.
So. I read books on writing, and as I do, the magpie part of me likes to pull out the shiny bits from each of those books and collect them.
When I found myself furiously scribbling notes and collecting quotes for reading during the dark times, I figured it was time to just endorse this whole book: Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig.
If you’ve never read any Chuck Wendig, well, you should give him a try. He has a lot of books and a prolific blog and a hilarious Twitter feed — lots of different ways in which you can familiarize yourself with his writing. (Seriously, check out some of his Twitter exchanges with author Sam Sykes. One of them even became a horror movie.)
He has a very particular style, especially when he is talking about writing (or politics), that is equal parts hilarious, profane, and profound.
In Damn Fine Story, he breaks down the elements of a good story and tries to verbalize how to be a good storyteller. He goes through structure and character and theme, and uses a lot of Die Hard and Star Wars references to get his points across. The book is irreverent and joyful and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, in short, very much Chuck Wendig.
In lieu of just quoting the whole thing to you, you should go grab a copy and read it for yourself. And if you know any writerly friends, it would make for a good holiday present.
The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Week one of the flash fiction inktober thing down!
I’ve found this week very productive, despite the tempting distraction that is a brand new copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and an egregiously huge TV. Building in the flash fiction bit to my morning has allowed me to feel more playful and experimental in my writing again, which was something I had been missing during my more recent Large Project slog.
Some days were certainly easier than others, but each day brought with it a new little idea. Most of them I was happy to just visit the once, but there are a couple in there that I want to polish and hoard and maybe expand.
Since each piece is so short, it’s given me an opportunity to look at the finished first drafts and pick out the problems I have a tendency to repeat — it’s much more obvious when you have several drafts to look at than when you are in the midst of the one big one. I’ve gotten some perspective too on what made a couple of my other larger projects not work so well. So now, I can be a little more deliberate in how I piece things together, and I can direct my attention more consciously to my weak points.
All in all, educational so far. I do need to come up with a plan for what I’m going to do with all these first drafts at the end of the month though…
And now, a rant.
For some reason, I’ve seen an excess of articles this past week once again espousing writing “rules” in that particularly prescriptive hard-and-fast tone of voice that I find grating. This week I’ve seen a confluence of attacks, once again, on adverbs. And sometimes even adjectives.
On the one hand, I get it. All things are now STATED with AUTHORITY because qualifiers make you weak. Even though dealing in absolutes obliterates all nuance (that every aspect of everything has). That includes the unnecessarily harsh prohibition against using adverbs. (Use even one, and — egads! — you will become a Bad Writer™!)
And again, I get it. Mostly, when this rule is repetitively bandied about, it’s frequently about annoyingly using adverbs excessively and gratuitously. I get it.
But it’s said in this way, this looking-down-my-nose-at-your-ly-suffix way that makes me want to… I don’t know, glare at a houseplant (Sorry, houseplant. It’s not your fault.).
When it comes down to it, the writers that I most admire and wish to emulate are not afraid of or averse to using adjectives and adverbs. Those things are, as with any of the other aspects of language, merely tools. The writing that I like uses these tools and wields them skillfully and with great intention.
Here is Ursula K. Le Guin’s more moderate perspective on adjectives and adverbs:
Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and nourishing. They add color, life, immediacy. They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.
I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
And maybe, this more measured take on it is what people mean. But it’s not what they say.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend it. It is a small, powerful book that can be revisited over and over again.)
As part of NaNoPrep, I’ve been reading a few books on writing to refresh my conceptualizations of the essential elements of stories: structure, character, style, etc. It’s been highly gratifying so far to remind myself of the mechanics of writing, and it’s rebooted my brain a bit to read more critically as well. I generally find it rewarding to get into the nuts/bolts, nitty/gritty, guts of things, although sometimes I’ll do it to distraction as a way to procrastinate the actual doing of things. (Constant vigilance in the War of Art and all that.)
In addition to reading and brainstorming, I’ve also been working my way through season 10 of Writing Excuses. Writing Excuses is a bite-sized podcast (~15 minutes per ep, tagline: “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart”) that contains a lot of depth and a lot of insight.