Saturday, 15 March 2008

Guest Article #1: Lyphobia

This post begins a regular series of guest articles by fellow professionals in the publishing world, in this case by editor Dr. Bob Rich. In addition to editing manuscripts for publication, he is an author and edits "Bobbing Around", an online magazine about writing, politics, the environment, and more. This article, which appears in the latest issue of Bob's magazine, covers the peculiar trend among writers of fearing the adverb. His article is below.

A substantial subculture of the writing community suffers from an obviously painful phobia to the terminal syllable -ly. They would point out to me that the word "obviously" adds nothing to this sentence: it would mean the same, and have the same force, if the word was deleted.

What's more, they are correct. This is an instance where the adverb is not needed.

In other situations, instead of qualifying a generic verb with an adverb, you can create stronger writing by using a more specific verb that encompasses the meaning of the adverb. "She quickly walked along the footpath" is weaker than "She hurried along the footpath."

A third case when an adverb is unsuitable is if it replaces vivid description. This can be one aspect of "telling not showing." "Angrily she walked out of the room" uses the adverb as a shorthand for the behavior that indicates her mood to an observer. "She spun around, stormed through the door and slammed it behind her, hard enough to shake the building" is far more vivid.

But just because an adverb is sometimes inappropriate doesn't mean it is invariably wrong. Why is it a grammatical form if it should never be used? It exists because it is useful.

Certainly, the adverb in my opening sentence is not needed, and deleting it would not leave a hole. However, the adverb starting this paragraph is useful. It adds emphasis. The sentence would be weaker if it were removed. Words have uses other than merely conveying information. In this instance, although "certainly" adds no meaning, it indicates depth of belief.

While "hurried" is stronger and therefore better than "quickly walked", try finding a similar word to replace "quickly set the table." I can't -- so if I wanted to indicate hurry in this situation, the -ly word would have to do.

In the third example, I used a vivid description instead of the summary adverb. This replaced a 7-word phrase with 18 words. Often, we need to write to word limits, and simply cannot afford the words to do this in every situation. If you want your book to be published on paper, you need to consider the cost of production. The paper is printed on is over two-thirds of the cost. So, pages saved mean a cheaper sale price. This is why few publishers will risk a long book from an unknown writer.

In any case, were you to use a vivid sensory description for every little action, you would end up with a baroque word filigree that would overwhelm the reader. It's best to concentrate attention on key events with concrete description, bringing these situations to life. The rest of the story, the connecting bits that form the background, should be more summary. And what makes this possible? Clearly, I don't have to spell it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank God for common sense.

Lyphobia. I like it.

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