Anyone who has ever really heard Carol Lunch Williams talk enthusiastically about writing knows that she really has a terribly big hang-up about –ly words, otherwise known as adverbs. She’s even totally mentioned it on this blog as recently as her cleverly written “Three Things Thursday” posted hastily on October 6.
In case our two lonely blog readers regrettably mislearned this principle in 6th grade, I’m going to write this next part v e r y s l o w l y: adverbs are words that modify verbs and adjectives. Here’s what you didn’t learn in 6th grade: in nearly all cases, adverbs are essentially
useless unless you’re a wimpy writer.
“What’s a wimpy writer?” the two of you are asking. Well, I know you’re expecting me to say something inflammatory like wimpy writers are weak-willed washouts who want to write for weird work like “Project Writeway,” but I’m not going to say anything about that because even though some neophyte novices might be naïve enough to natter away on such nonsense, it doesn’t make them wimpy writers.
Wimpy writers are writers who produce spineless prose.
“What’s ‘spineless prose’?” you ask. Spineless prose is the product of wimpy writers.
Are you still with me? Carol (aka “Denece”)? Andy (aka “Emily”)?
Try to picture this: an earthworm standing up. It can’t do it (unless it’s been frozen first, which could happen if it ventured prematurely from its warm earthy crawl space and into a puddle of water which, in a sudden temperature drop, froze, freezing the cold-blooded spineless worm into a linear position and then if a strong wind or a curious first-grade boy picked up the frozen, ramrod straight worm and propped it up on one end). So, just as earthworms can’t stand perpendicularly without some freakish act of nature, spineless prose cannot stand without being propped up by adverbs.
“Where does spineless prose come from?” Carol (aka :”Denece”) and Andy (aka “Emily”) ask inquiringly. It comes from wimpy writers.
“OK,” say our two blighted blog readers frustratedly, “but, you know, where did the wimpy writers get it?”
It’s hard to say. It could be from some genetic weakness, perhaps a too-wide gap in the synapses that autonomically triggers the infusion of superfluous modifiers into their writing, or it may be some culturally imposed habit that ingrained in wimpy writers the fear of anything strong. Or perhaps wimpy writers have secret financial connections with the medical industry, and because crutches are big sellers in that industry, they unconsciously put use linguistic crutches to prop up the handicapped verbs that populate their spineless prose. Certainly, much of the blame for spineless prose and wimpy writers can be placed on Teachers, the very folks who—as we all already know—are the clearly the cause of the downfall of civilization as we know it, including the War in Iraq, the Current Debt Crisis, the Stock Market Collapse of 2008, Freeway Construction, Low-Riding Baggy Pants on Teenage Boys, Cholesterol, Bad Handwriting, Junk Mail, Government and Politics, and Muzak. Yes, that’s right. Teachers are also to blame for spineless prose and wimpy writers. Totally, absolutely to blame.
Here’s how they do it:
They teach young, impressionable, innocents about words called ‘modifiers,’ words like adjectives and adverbs. Next they teach these same innocents—and this is very painful for me to write—about ‘descriptive’ writing. “Descriptive writing,” these lousy lurking louts tell our sweet unsuspecting students, “is writing that is descriptive. It paints a picture with words. It uses modifiers to paint those pictures. Today, class, you are going to practice descriptive writing. I want you to see just how many modifiers you can pack into your descriptive writing because modifiers are the colors writing artists paint with. The more modifiers you use, the better your grade will be.”
See? See how seductive that sales pitch is? Who could resist it? What young student would not immediately turn to his notepad, notebook, or Ipad and begin cranking out line upon line of corrupt descriptive writing, rotten writing riddled with adverbs and adjectives?
And then, when these innocents have been irrevocably warped into wimpy writers, the villain in all this, the purveyor of spineless prose, the wretched wreaker of wimpy writers, the Teacher, smiles evilly. Maybe she even chuckles quietly, or cackles mirthfully. She has done her damnable dirty work. She has convinced the rising generation that spineless prose is a good thing, that wimpy writers will be rewarded in the school system, that when it comes to using modifiers, especially adverbs, more is more.
Is there hope?
Yes, Carol (aka :”Denece”) and Andy (aka “Emily”), there is hope. The first step, of course, is to stop paying Teachers so much money, to cease glorifying their roles in society, to
put an end to the lifelong influence they have on America’s children, to find ways to curb their endless power and influence.
The second step is to learn to eradicate adverbs from your own writing.
The third step is to replace weak verbs with strong, specific verbs. Getting rid of spineless prose and wimpy writers is a tall order, I know, and it may require nuclear weapons and/or Navy Seals, but it can be done. You can also practice on these exercises I used in my creative writing class yesterday:
Avoid using adverbs) to prop up weak verbs. For example, instead of writing, “Throckmorten talked quietly.” write “Throckmorten whispered.” In general, adverbs are bad; replace them with lively specific verbs that tell the reader something important. Rewrite the following sentences by replacing the verb and adverb in each sentence with one strong, telling verb:
Now try it:
1. Throckmorten walked slowly into the room.
2. Throckmorten walked excitedly into the room.
3. Throckmorten walked quickly into the room.
4. Throckmorten walked slowly into the room.
5. Throckmorten walked happily into the room.
6. Throckmorten walked sadly into the room.
7. Throckmorten walked angrily into the room.
8. Throckmorten walked relievedly into the room.
9. Throckmorten walked sorely into the room.
10. Throckmorten walked reluctantly into the room.