MBM: Never Pity the Adverb, by Anthony Mercado

Welcome to the ninth day of

MARCH BOOK MADNESS!

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Today, Anthony Mercado is tackling the subject of adverbs. 

Anthony is one of those talented people I mentioned above. He comes from a great background in journalism where he learned to write with power and brevity.

His wife, Mary, gave that great post last week about The Art of Accepting Criticism. They’re a fun couple to hang around. They know the coolest stuff and have entertaining stories.

Anthony is quick to make me laugh with his dry sense of humor. He and Mary are the kind of people I try to glean as much as I can while I’m with them.

Today Anthony is going to help us strengthen our writing with a great post entitled,

,Anthony1

Never Pity the Adverb, by Anthony Mercado

“Just the facts verbs ma’am. Just the facts verbs.” ~ Joe Friday  A conscientious writer

The genesis of my shameful use of adjectives and adverbs is traced back to elementary school. Every teacher at Buena Vista Elementary gave this assignment in September: write a 200 word essay about what you did last summer.

You’ve heard the term, “stuffing the ballot box.” I, like many other school kids, “stuffed” the paper by beefing up the nothing essay with more of nothing—adjectives and, worse yet, adverbs. I knew it and the teacher knew it. The first sentence of my first draft probably started like this,

  • “My family and I went to Disneyland last summer.”

Weak in word count, I padded that sentence by 60 percent and transformed it into this,

  • “My remarkably wonderful family and I merrily went to Disneyland on a gloriously warm day last summer.”

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Among respectable writers, the adverb is, has been, and — it appears — always will be the red-headed step brother of good action verbs

You might say, “But I’ve read the classic writers like Dickens, Wilde and Chekhov as well as Nobel prize winners like Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Garcia-Marquez, Morrison and Coetzee. There are adverbs in their writing. Why can’t I use them too?”

You can if you’re careful.

Stephen King explains it in his writing memoir,On Writing,” this way:

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Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they are like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day after that…and then my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

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The adverb is a tool that, frugally used, can help deliver a punch

Use it too often and the punch line disappears in the sea of adverbial dandelions that neither enhance the story nor advance the plot.

Consider the wise counsel by an old friend, Bob Yehling, in a recent blog post called Sleuthing Through Winter. Bob has ghost written five books, edited 100 books, assisted 40 authors in landing book deals, in addition to writing and publishing seven of his own books. He says:

Through it all, though, I saw something else: plot and narrative pacing at its finest, delivering maximum impact with few words. This appeals greatly to me as both a writer and editor, because I’m always advising my clients to edit and polish, whittle and trim, boil down sentences to their most essential cores.

The most essential cores he speaks of do not include adverbs. The cores are the subject and the predicate. Adverbs can overload the cores to a meltdown, then an explosion. Adverbs are a sin of commission. Weak verbs are a sin of omission.

Did you ever hear Joe Friday, the stoic detective in the oldDragnet TV series say, “Please candidly describe exactly what you saw, ma’am.” He always said, “Just the facts ma’am.” Writers should edit to this mantra, “Just the verbs, ma’am. Just the verbs,” as they analyze their prose.

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The path to follow in watching the use of adverbs is whether the adverb is necessary or not. King clarifies in “On Writing.”

 Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It is by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me…but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Use the Internet to Your Advantage

The open forum of the Internet is a collection of some of the best and worst prose ever. But in those billions of pages are good tools for writers.

Elizabeth O’Brien publishes a site called, Grammar revolution which describes things like, what is a verb and what is an adverb. And she teaches how to diagram a sentence. Don’t laugh or cry. It might be a good refresher that can help you get to your next level.

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You can go to the old standby, Strunk and White’sThe Elements of Style.”

Another good site is Grammar Girl’sQuick and dirty tips that gives clear explanations about grammar elements.

Google “adverbs” and you’ll get more information than you want, but some may help. Google “action verbs” and you will get hits with lists — comprehensive lists — of verbs.

The most painful and fun part of writing for me is finding the right words, particularly the verbs. Finding the right one is joyous. I cringe finding the adverbs, adjectives and weak verbs I plant during the free writing, first draft mode.

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Editing is the process of rooting the dandelions

Writing well is about a good plot, good characters and good grammar.

Never forget, no matter how much you love the blood that you’ve spilled on those pages, experienced agents and editors will quickly file your pages away if your language use is poor. A preponderance of adverbs is a big red flag to most of them. And they can be harsh in judging your writing.

Stephen King said to USA Today in 2009,images (1)

Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephanie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.

  • note to self: never send manuscript to Stephen King

True, it is all subjective. There are bad movies, bad TV shows, bad music and bad art that some people think is good. If you’re going to write, at least follow the rules which include intelligent use of adverbs. Learn the craft of writing and dream away. Harshly judge yourself. If you don’t someone else will.

Learn how to close the door on your poor writing that has a good idea and open it again with the idea that you can find plot enhancing verbs to replace weak ones that require adverbs.

Happy writing.

f471210f9da2aa6f6a6a4241188b2a7dBio:

Anthony Mercado wrote sports and features for community newspapers in Southern California, wrote and produced content for PBS “The Nightly Business Report,” produced and hosted a TV news magazine in Miami, FL, and was a PR flack. He loves good conversations about politics, sports, pop culture and human nature.

Find Anthony: Twitter, Blog, Yahoo Voices

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Rebecca:

Thanks for the great post, Anthony! I love the title, too. Never pity the adverb.

I’ve struggled with adverbs since I started writing. I can’t tell if I love or hate them. Depends on the day, I guess. But like Anthony said, when I’m vigilant in rooting out the majority (*pauses to double-check this post*), my writing is stronger, which is the goal.

Now I get to spend the day looking for -ly. They like to creep in everywhere.

Thanks again, Anthony! (There’s a little sarcasm in there, since it’s a tedious job, but I definitely needed the reminder.)

(Oops. Just used definitely. This could be a long day.)

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What about you? How do you feel about adverbs? How do you weed them out?

Next up on MARCH BOOK MADNESS

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

12 thoughts on “MBM: Never Pity the Adverb, by Anthony Mercado”

  1. Excellent article. As a long-time disciple of Dickens, who could load more adjectives and adverbs into a paragraph better than any other author, I have the same tendencies. Always good to be on guard.

    Great Joe Friday quote, by the way.
    Chris

    Like

  2. Okay, I have to admit it. I have a soft heart when it comes to adverbs. But I am starting to see how they crowd out more important ideas. I am gathering the strength to get right up on them and attack them with the weed spray. But sometimes, I get close and they look so pretty and innocent sitting there, and I lose my nerve. Thank you, Anthony, for helping me to see the error of my ways. Maybe, one day, with a lot of work, my manuscript will be dandelion free!

    Like

  3. Great article. I’m becoming better at snuffing out my dandelions now in my rewrites. The adverbs glare out at me now, whereas I used to find them colorful and pretty (that elementary school training kicking in). But when I see them and think about the sentence that contains them, I find that almost always, I can rework it to be more succinct and stronger at the same time.

    Like

  4. Adverbs do tend to take away from any grittiness. Having that one pretty dandelion sounds like a useful skill though – I guess not in the middle of an action scene!

    Like

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