Adverbs yea, adverbs nay: another rule to be broken

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It’s a fundamental of writing: beware of adverbs. They work at their best when they spice up adjectives. But too often they’re at their worst, expressing a meaning already inside a sentence.

They can entertain if you don’t have to rely on them. You can have fun with the pun game Tom Swiftie, where the adverb amplifies the meaning of the sentence. “I need some pizza now,” he said crustily. (Feel free to contribute your own Swifties in the comments section below.)

The repair to sentences choked by adverbs? Find a way to convert the verb/adverb combinations to a strong verb alone. “She went quickly down the stairs” could become “She bolted down the stairs.”

Still, the adverb advisory is an overworked maxim in writing. In the new book The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, Tim Tomlinson lists the “cut out adverbs” directive as useless, but often promoted in creative writing instruction:

The [MFA from Columbia] education I received for over $30,000 can be condensed into eight easy to forget points, and I offer them all for the price of this book:

  1. Write what you know; don’t write what you don’t know.
  2. Flashy style of language without a story to tell is “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
  3. Writing can’t be taught.
  4. Cut out adverbs
  5. Never use the word “always”
  6. “You will never be fictionists.”
  7. Don’t write screenplays; they will destroy your ability to write prose fiction.
  8. There are kinds of stories.

None of these are wrong, he says (“except for the vapid number three and the asinine number six’), but Tomlinson says they’re all useless. “Tear them out and cumple them up, find a wastebasket and practice your sky hook — because with these eight MFA rules as your guidelines, you have a better chance of making it in the NBA.”

Sure, watch the adverbs in your writing. Keep a closer eye on more essential matters such as theme, the guideline to assembling your adverb-free writing into a compelling narrative structure. More on that tomorrow, along with a quick exercise that I’ll be using to get underway with a rewritten synopsis.

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