A short example of why I continue the War on Adverbs

I battle without letup in the War on Adverbs. I agree with King that most of them are as needless and slothful as the dreadful ‘she felt’ tell-over-show that plagues amateurish writing. I’ve written about this before, but as I was driving to a community education class tonight, the perfect example came to me.

Here is a simple case, inspired by but not quoted from one of Jean Auel’s books. Imagine Pierre and Robert have just met and are getting to know one another. They have not yet found their common ground, a passion for metalworking.

“I must soon get back to my forge,” said Pierre.

“You also work the metal?” Robert exclaimed eagerly.

Sounds okay, does it? Here’s what’s much better:

“I must soon get back to my forge,” said Pierre.

Robert’s eyes lit up. “You also work the metal?”

See the difference. The action obviated all need for an adverb, while giving us a picture of Robert’s expression rather than a description of his tone. If we have a sense of his face, we can picture his excitement. We also don’t need ‘exclaimed’ any more, do we? The reader can infer the thrill in his tone, especially if we have bothered to develop Robert at all (if not, shame on us). The speaker’s identity is implicit and clear.

We didn’t take the easy way. We had Robert do something. We thought of the character, imagined his reaction to some exciting news, and carried it through. The stage is set for a metallurgical geek-out of epic proportions. Bonus: if the word count didn’t go down, the character count did.

The useful adverb is the one you cannot eliminate in this way, or in any other way. The useful adverb pays its way. Most of them are just “but actual writing is hard!” cop-outs. Most are like patches of yellow hi-liting, from which one can picture a popup: “At this point, I didn’t really want to write, so I just said screw it.”

Good writing looks at scenes in which one phoned it in, and repairs that disappointment.


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