Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Friday 28 March 2014

Adverbs and other Knotty Problems

I don’t like it when people, by which I generally mean writers, impose rules on writing.

For example, I was recently pointed in the direction of a blog on how to write without employing adverbs.

What’s wrong with the humble adverb?

Well, used badly, there’s plenty wrong with them, and a lot of bad writing involves a lot of adverbs, because the writer who overuses them has forgotten about things like tone, rhythm and language and is using adverbs to make up for his failings in those areas. All of these things, plus the use of the correct verb can obviate the use of an adverb. Using an abundance of adverbs is a common rookie mistake.

However, that is not to say that adverbs are bad. That is also not to say that the narrative voice or the particular styling of a character might not require the writer to use them, even a great many of them under special circumstances.

Some writers of my acquaintance use writing programs with algorithms that suggest when they’re overusing particular words. Well, bad writing might involve clumsy repetition. I’ve seen it, and, as a reader, it can make a book unbearable to read.

On the other hand, repetition can build tension, or add emphasis, and it can be shorthand for a character or set of characters with limitations of one kind or another. I’ve used it myself to connote primitive races in their speech patterns.

There are lots of things that might be used in direct speech that grammar and spelling checkers consider wrong, but which, if put right, would make characters sound utterly unlike the personalities a writer might intend to portray. And yet, how many new writers rely heavily on the grammar and spelling checkers in their WP programs? There’s a risk that they might end up correcting things that were totally right for their characters.

I’m not trying to suggest there aren’t a great many ways to become a better writer. I’m just saying, as I always do, that writing is as much an art as it is a craft. That the two things need to dovetail together to make a more perfect whole, and that, as in any other art form, like painting or composing, diligence and repeated practice are more important than a crap-ton of rules and regulations.

Yes the basics are important. It’s a good idea to have a grasp of vocabulary and grammar, but we all went to school for that (I hope). Reading’s a damned good idea too. Apart from anything else, reading good prose will expand anyone’s vocabulary, and, who knows, give us all a better grasp of something as basic as grammar; not to mention how to construct a story, define characters, build a rhythm... all manner of things. After that it’s about flexing the writing muscles. Algorithms for this and programs for that won’t make you a better writer, any more than will cutting adverbs.

What might make you better is having really good readers who will be properly critical. Those people probably aren’t your best mate and your mum, although, by all means seek encouragement wherever you can find it when your confidence flags.

Take rejection seriously.

Rejection is your friend.
Me (on the left) hanging on every word
of a  successful writer
That's the husband (on the right)

And it doesn’t matter how polite the rejection is or in what glowing terms it is couched.

As an aside to agents and other professional rejectors. I wish you people would stop being so damned nice and go back to calling a spade a shovel. I’m not sure your words are as kind as you think they are. At best, you might be wasting people’s time if you make them believe that they’re likely to be published one day, possibly soon, when, in fact, their novels are beyond bad. At worst you might be killing them with your kindness.

A rejection is a rejection. One way or another your writing sample simply wasn’t good enough. Stop. Or, go away and do better. 

Your choice.

Either way, take rejection seriously.

Take it from someone who has been rejected A LOT!

It’s unlikely that your work was rejected because you used too many adverbs or repeated the same words too often. It is unlikely that your work was rejected because your grammar or spelling were a little inconsistent. That’s what editors are for. 

All these things are, of course, might be symptoms of something else, a problem that runs deeper. They probably prove that you haven’t written enough or read enough, and haven’t been exposed to enough critical appraisal or enough rejection... yet.

Take heart. If you keep writing for long enough, one of these days you probably will be.

Having said all of that, if you want my rules for writing you can find them in this blog, and not a single mention of adverbs, I promise... Come to think of it, my ten rules for writing aren't actually rules, they’re just stuff... stuff I thought you might want to have a bit of a think about, for what it’s worth.

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