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No One Expects the Spanish Engequisition!

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009 | Posted by James Enge


First, something which might seem like a naked shameless plug, but which is in fact a plug modestly garbed in news that might be of interest to Black Gate readers. As part of the run-up to the release of Blood of Ambrose, Pyr has put the complete text of a couple of Morlock stories on their “Sample Chapters” blog: “A Book of Silences”, which originally appeared in Black Gate 10, and a new novelette-length sequel, “Fire and Sleet”. Read and enjoy; no salesman will call. Send before midnight.

Anyway.

After several weeks of reviewing Nebula nominees, I was somewhat at a loss in trying to figure out what I should write about this week. Mulling it over, I decided I should publicly commit heresy.

My heterodoxy (not as interesting as it sounds): I believe that adjectives and adverbs are good things. Not just good things, in fact, but essential.

More shocking confessions beyond the jump.


_____

They say it’s always a mistake to have a brilliant writer as a character in your stories, but if you must then you should avoid quoting his brilliant works at all cost, and when I say “they” I really mean “I”, of course.

The most recent example of this in my reading life was the work of Jack McDevitt’s character MacAllister, the nature of which I have divulged in my previous utterance about which I complained in a previous entry. But one of the things that bothered me most was the scene where (for no plot-relevant reason at all), MacAllister rails against a (non-quoted) writer for writing with “too many adjectives and adverbs.” Nouns and verbs, we are told, “do the heavy lifting.”

It’s all part of the demonization of adjectives and adverbs which seems to go back to Strunk and White (a sacred text to many) and which is, to put it bluntly, crazy and wrong. Even McDevitt couldn’t criticize adjective-usage without using an adjective.

The thing is, adjectives and adverbs aren’t just paint that gets slapped onto a sentence before it gets wheeled out to be seen by the customer; they’re essential to communicate meaning. (“Not” is an adverb, for instance. So you can’t say “Don’t write with adverbs!” without using an adverb, something which should give adverb-haters pause for thought.)

Consider this famous piece of English:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

Now let’s Strunkify it by striking out the nouns and adjectives:

We hold truths to be: that men are, that they are by their Creator with rights.

A document written in this half-assed way would be incapable of conveying a simple point, much less inspiring a world with the dream of freedom.

How does this apply to fantasy? Here’s an iconic quote from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth

“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvelous creatures are lost past the remotest memory… Nevermore will there be the like: now in the last fleeting moments humanity festers, rich as rotten fruit.”

Here’s the same passage, Strunkified:

“Minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a voice. “Souls have into the ages; creatures are the memory… Will be the: in the moments humanity festers, as fruit.”

One almost feels as if there’s something missing, here, in spite of all the heavy lifting being done by verbs like “have” and “are”.

But Vance’s style is famously ornate. You couldn’t pull this trick with a writer using a plainer, more direct voice. Could you?

Sure! Here’s a bit I plucked at random from the first chapter of Lord of the Rings:

“I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!” he snorted. “Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean.”

Here’s the Strunkified version:

“I am, Gandalf. I do look it but I am to feel it in my heart of hearts.” He snorted. “I feel… if you know what I mean.”

Well, no, Strunky Bilbo, we don’t know what you mean. Without adverbs or adjectives, you just can’t say it.

You certainly can’t make bad writing into good by pouring adjectives and adverbs onto it like syrup over scorched pancakes. But neither can you make bad writing into good just by gutting sentences of their descriptive elements.

The attraction of simple rules in a field as fearfully complex as English style is obvious: they’re simple, easy to internalize. The trouble is, it’s not easy to make a generalization about this kind of evidence which is simple and also true, and the warning about adjectives and adverbs is demonstrably false and will lead in turn to bad writing and ill-tempered exchanges in crit groups.

I searched for years for a style guide which would do what Strunk&White was supposed to do but didn’t. The best one I’ve seen so far is Joseph Williams’ Style: Lesons in Clarity and Grace (which has a streamlined version, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace).

But I wouldn’t say they’re magic bullets and I’m always interested to hear what other people are using.

5 Comments »

  1. Wave your heretic flag high. My only complaint about your advise is I’ve encountered so many people who embrace it with the same enthusiasm as the anti-adverb crowd, piling on the descriptors until a sentence is so nuanced it forgets where it’s going.

    But my preference is for simplicity. In my own writing, I find the adverb and adjective counts are usually cut in half during revision as unnecessary ones are tossed out.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 1, 2009 12:51 pm

  2. I think it’s good to write without adjectives and adverbs in the beginning so that a writer can learn to write a strong, basic sentence. It’s helped me (maybe…?). Too many people rely on adverbs to communicate the power of action instead of finding the right verb. Once someone learns to write, paint, sculpt, whatever, with verbs and nouns, they can then proceed to learn how to use modifiers effectively. Some nouns don’t need adjectives since their very trait carries that adjective. But that never stops people from writing that a pillow, bed, carpet, couch and tush are all soft, or that blood is always red, etc. This might be what Strunk & White were trying to get at, though they never explicitly say it. I mean, they quote examples from Faulkner, THE KING of adjectives.

    Comment by Gabe - April 1, 2009 1:35 pm

  3. Forgot to post this. I like John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction”. There isn’t a whole lot on writing, moreso on plotting, but the section of cadence is awesome.

    Comment by Gabe - April 1, 2009 1:37 pm

  4. Like most writing tools, if you take an extreme stance in either direction, your writing will suffer.

    I disagree that you need to learn to write without adjectives and adverbs to write good sentences. Strong verb choice is important, but it’s not the only thing to consider in a sentence.

    I think this rule gets far too much attention. However, it’s possible that “Don’t use the word was because it’s passive” gets more bad press.

    Amateur writers are great for passing each other bad advice. The best thing I’ve learned in the last year is to filter out opinion from helpful advice.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - April 1, 2009 2:02 pm

  5. Hey Jeff: I’m still working on the design of the flag. (Maybe a snake in 13 pieces with the slogan “Freak or Die!”?)

    I see what you mean about excess. The way I put this issue to myself is: every reader has limits on how much frippery they’ll put up with while the writer makes his point (or fails to). The more frippery, the greater the risk of losing more readers. Frippery can take the form of excess description or digressions or excessively fussy tense constructions or whatever. (I often find myself trimming pluperfects and future perfects when I revise.)

    Hey Gabe: I’m not sure I can accept the premise that writing without adjectives, even temporarily, makes for a stronger sentence.

    Suppose our hero, Barney the Unbeatable, has been fighting someone in a stream; blood mingles with the water and it becomes red. Is “The stream reddened” really stronger than “The stream grew red”? I can’t see it.

    But writing deliberately in different styles has got to be a good discipline, no matter what the parameters. So even if we disagree in theory, we may may not be too far apart in practice.

    Thanks for the ref to the Gardner book; I’ll have to look it up. I liked his Grendel.

    Hey Dave: Definitely lots of info, good and bad, gets passed around.

    One of the hardest lessons I learned (to the extent I really have) is that I’m not going to reach everybody. So reader reactions are useful, but not all datapoints are created equal.

    Comment by James Enge - April 1, 2009 5:46 pm


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