It slipped into my consciousness early one morning, originating perhaps from a faded dream or springing from something I’d recently read. Maybe it had arisen from an odd whisper, a snippet of lyrics, a silly aside uttered by my goofball daughter, or an observation expressed by my wife, a master of sarcasm. From wherever it came, the idea ended up spilling across the palette of words that I grasped in my imagination, beseeching me to paint it across the computer screen and imploring me to post it to my blog page or add it to a book chapter. So I obeyed, as I always do.
I typed with passion, broad strokes at first, followed by more subtle touches, a hint of light here, a dash of emotion there. Words linked with words, dancing the Conga one after another, hands on waists and rhythm on hips as they scrolled their way back and forth, to and fro, up and down the page, laughing with the joy of just doing what they do best: inviting all to participate. I joined them with gladness in my soul and life in my fingers. Hours later I beheld my work—our work—the melding of Spirit with spirit, reflecting the essence of purpose, fulfilling my design as an image bearer to the Most High God. I wept.
For a week after I’d completed the piece, I nipped and tucked, polished and honed, tweaked and folded, cut and pasted. The page radiated life and coaxed out my joy. I reveled in gladness, and suddenly I wanted to share it with a congregation of kindred souls: my read-and-critique group. They would appreciate the passion! They would treasure the art! They would recognize the hunger, the longing, the labor of love as I read the sentences, enunciating each word as I spread my good cheer like soothing balm upon the yearning ears of my fellow scribes.
I read, they listened. I finished, they began. I smiled outwardly, I groaned inwardly. As they sliced up my baby I reminded myself this was for my own good, dammit, that we learn the most from our mistakes, that trials build character, that whatever doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. Blah blah blah . . . .
“You have too many El Why words,” they professed. “Use stronger verbs.” Yes, I thought. Of course. Stronger verbs. “Stomped” instead of “treaded heavily.” “Picked” instead of “ate slowly.” “Reflected” instead of “sat thoughtfully.”
I recognized threads of truth uttered by my hero, Stephen King, channeled through their razor-edged critique: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” he wrote, “and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Yes, I admit that sometimes my writing walks proudly, er, um, marches down the road to perdition. Or off the edge of rooftops. “Nouns and verbs are the guts of the language,” declared A.B. Guthrie, Jr. “Beware of covering up with adjectives and adverbs.” How could we ever become comfortable exposing our hearts to the world if we insist in covering them up with the leathery skin of lazy writing? “Personally, I think the ‘Potter’ books have too many adverbs and not enough sex,” observed Lev Grossman. At one time my wife and I discussed how we could outdo Fifty Shades of Gray. Then the adverbs got in the way.
Like houseflies and fire ants, however, adverbs still do have their place, albeit a position of ignobility. This truth was driven home recently when I attempted to read a popular inspirational book recommended by a good friend. I was eager to crack the covers, breathe in the heady scent of fresh paper and new ink, and dive into the promised ocean of enlightenment, only I ended up treading water in a fishpond infested with inspiration-eating amoebas.
Thinking it would grow on me as I read further, I dog-paddled my way through the opening few chapters, wondering why the writing grated on me like the insistent questioning of a six-year-old kid. Then it slapped me upside the head: throughout the book, the author had substituted adjectives where the adverbs should have been. It was a case of misplaced modifiers, by Jove! Once I realized this oddity, though, I just couldn’t get past it; I ended up stuffing the book back on the shelf. Forcefully.
Henry James once said, “I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say I adore adverbs—I don’t adore houseflies or fire ants—but I recognize their function. And like grace notes sprinkled throughout a symphonic piece, or tasteful trim applied to the lines of a house, well-placed adverbs can add a flourish to a good sentence or a little sprucing up around the edges. So the next time you’re tempted to cut out one of those insidious El Why words, consider this: adverbs, like nose hairs and spam email, have a function. Subscribing to the philosophy of “all things in moderation,” have at it! Just make sure the adverb of choice is the best word for what you want to convey and how you want to convey it. And for God’s sake, I implore you: please don’t substitute adjectives, or any other parts of speech, in place of them. This may cause your reader to throw vehemently, er, um, heave your book through the wall. Gracelessly.
Copyright © 2014 David C Hughes