Monday, October 6, 2008

Making Verbs Pull Their Weight

The alternate title to this post: Die Adverbs, Die.

Consider this writing advice--not for those who tend to read this blog (they hold their own in the writing world), but for anyone who happens to stumble by. I am by no means a professional writer, and I don't claim to be.

What I am, professionally, is an English teacher. I don't claim to be very good at that, either, but it does afford an opportunity to notice things. My students have an unhealthy addiction to weak verbs. My least favorite: get. What meaning is conveyed in the word, "get"? Damn little. Some students almost exclusively use "get", either as the main verb or some mutant hybrid helping verb. Sheesh.

Today's observation: vivid verbs make writing better, and adding adverbs often hurts a sentence. This might seem elementary, but these bad boys crop up everywhere. When the verbs do most of the work, when they are forced to carry most of the meaning, everybody wins.

Think about a simple verb like "run". Suppose your MC needs to vacate the premises, post haste. Maybe the thing in the basement is creeping up the stairs. Does the MC "quickly run" (snooze) or does she "sprint" or "bolt"?

"Janice noticed the black tendrils at the basement door and bolted for the exit."


"Janice noticed the black tendrils at the basement door and quickly ran for the exit."

The first option has better rhythm--it paints a vivid picture in fewer words.

Verbs can be your best friends. Adverbs can hinder action.

Time to grade more papers...hurm.


Natalie L. Sin said...

Good point. Recently I was musing on how "noticed" is different than "saw" and what situations warrant which.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I was going to say good point until I read Nat's post so I won't.

Rob Brooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Brooks said...

As my good friends Strunk and White put it, "Use definite, specific, concrete language." Cutting out adverbs has always been one of my biggest challenges in writing.

(I noticed a horrendous spelling error and had to rewrite. Sorry.)

Aaron Polson said...

Don't worry Rob...I'm not one of those English teachers. ;)

Catherine J Gardner said...

One of the first rules of writing is adverbs weaken the story. Yet, I seem to stumble over them in so many books and short stories by far more successful authors (okay, it's not that hard to be more successful than me but you get my point) that I'm beginning to think it's a conspiracy and I may add a happily (okay, maybe not) to my next story. :)

Seriously (ahem!), I think it's the key to success.

Carrie Harris said...

Yes, but did you grade papers carefully? Tiredly? Exasperatedly?

I'm sorry. I just couldn't resist. I really do agree with you. Thoroughly.

Aaron Polson said...

Cate - I agree--many successful author's violate those "rules" on a regular basis. I think there is a magic door (somewhere); once you pass that threshold, all rules are inconsequential. If I find it, I'll be sure to throw you a line.