Friday, June 3, 2011

Cutting Purple Prose: Try an adverb edit!

“The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King

I have a confession to make.  I love adverbs.  Seriously.  Mr. King and others have decried their usage far and wide, going so far as to say of J.K. Rowling, “[she’s] never met an adverb she didn’t like.”
But is that really such a bad thing?  I mean, adverbs can lend inflection or motivation to an action or statement, using fewer words than a roundabout description would.  For example:
“Melanie hurried down the deserted hallway.”   This is a little sparse for my taste.  Why is Melanie hurrying?  What’s driving her action?
“Glancing over her shoulder with a gulp, hoping that her footsteps wouldn’t invite pursuit, Melanie hurried down the deserted hallway, as she wondered why it was empty at that hour of day.”  I kept this sentence free of adverbs on purpose; it’s descriptive of Melanie’s trepidation and the need to rush, and it “shows” rather than “tells” the action and motivation.  It does border on wordy, though, and if every sentence uses this many commas and clauses, the reader will get mired in details.
“Melanie nervously hurried down the unusually deserted hallway.”  These adverbs get the important information across in fewer words, with only an independent clause that is quick and easy to grasp.  Admittedly, it’s not as interesting, as it feels more like a summary and less like a scene.  What about mashing these flawed sentences together?
“Hoping that her footsteps wouldn’t invite pursuit, Melanie hurried down the unusually deserted hallway.”  With a leading modifier for one piece of information and an adverb for the other, it’s a better mix, in my humble opinion.  It reads more smoothly, getting the point across in 14 words instead of 32.
With that in mind, here’s a suggestion for all you writers out there, based upon something I tried a few weeks ago on my finished manuscript, The Keeper of Hawthorn Garden.  In Microsoft Word, I used the CTRL-F “Find” command to search for common adverbs throughout my book: really, very, such, quite, -fully (thoughtfully, carefully, wonderfully, etc), and so on.  In the newest version of Word, the program will even tell you from the get-go how many times you’ve used a selected word. 
(you could also start by just searching "ly" at first to pull up common -ly adverbs, but as I have characters with the surname Lytton, it wasn't practical for me.)
I made a list, adding to it as I went, of over 30 adverbs that I thought I might have overused: barely, tightly, nearly, sharply, softly, suddenly, gently, quietly, quickly, slowly, eagerly, almost, quite, lightly, -fully, simply, fast, scarcely, excitedly, actually, anxiously, very, indeed, such, really, rapidly, swiftly, hastily, and more.  For each word, I searched the manuscript with the “next usage” function, and snap-decided whether the word was or wasn’t necessary to the sentence, chapter, and story.  If it wasn’t, I deleted it and moved on.  I kept track of before and after numbers as I went, and the results were both surprising and encouraging.
I cut hundreds of words!  LITERALLY.  Hundreds of them!  I threw out almost 30 “verys,” 50 “quicklys,” 30 “quites,” and dozens of lightlys, tightlys, and brightlys.  I felt liberated to see the word count drop bit by bit, because I knew that I was excising only what was unnecessary.  It didn't sting like cutting a scene or a character, and it didn't take all that long. 
I'll probably wait another month and then do another adverb purge, after my inner concise-inator has recharged.  I can tell, though, that it's increased my adverbial awareness in my work-in-progress, too.  When I'm writing now, I ask myself, "Can I really cut that 'really'?  Can I do without that 'obviously'?"  The answer, more often than I would have expected, is yes.
Don't get me wrong - I still adore a good adverb.  Stephen King can't win me over to his side that easily.  But learning to use them like seasonings, instead of ingredients, is a skill that I am eager to develop further.  If you're up for it, try an adverb edit!  And please let me know how it goes!

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. I'm working on an adverb post and came across yours. Very helpful material. And a cute blog to boot!