I’m deep into my anesthesia novel, which I haven’t talked about here yet. Soon. Just for fun, and because Austin’s given permission, I thought I’d share a bit about my writing process.
Last weekend I made war on adverbs. I’ll explain the context in a bit, but first a question: Can you write completely without adverbs? That’s the whole problem right there. Let’s run it by again. Can you write without adverbs? Which sentence do you prefer? Actually, I prefer the second one. There’s the problem afresh. I prefer the second one.
Somebody once called adverbs weasel words. By this he meant qualifiers. And their effect is to drain power from sentences. Hemmingway hated adverbs. (He wasn’t too keen on adjectives either. I mean, nor was he keen on adjectives.) Nor is my poetry teacher, Jack Grapes, keen on adverbs. When I took his class, Jack charged a quarter per adverb. He’d let you keep an adverb in a poem, but it meant you owed him a quarter. An adverb here, an adverb there, pretty soon you were talking real money.
Okay, context. I’m finishing the draft of my new novel, getting ready to send it to some folks I trust for feedback. But I noticed it was kind of heavy on adverbs, so I re-read the draft last weekend and circled every adverb I ran into. Then I made a pass to see how many I could get rid of. I got rid of a lot, but I worried that I’d missed some. So I did a global search on ly. I found another slew to make war on.
Final score: Pascoe 190. Adverbs 11.
I recommend this exercise. It will improve your writing, but not the way you think: It will teach you to love your adverbs. I love my darling adverbs. I wasn’t sorry to see them go, but I was grateful to every last one of them. Why? I discovered they weren’t weasel words. They were precision words. I had put them into my sentences as a shorthand way to refine my thinking. They were “Under Construction” signs, little notes to myself along the way that I was grinding hard about something, and needed to complete the thought.
Adverbs belong in a draft. They’re a step towards precision. I don’t want them in a finished piece any more than I want to walk around with my underwear showing. But I do want precision in my sentences. Sometimes, when I revisit an adverb, I find I’ve already done all the thinking I want. I can lose the adverb and the sentence still works—the precision remains. Other times—the more years I write, the less this seems to happen—I conclude the adverb helps. I leave it in. And sometimes—I live for these moments—I find a way to say what I want in a sentence that retains or heightens the precision but drops the adverb. Let me show you four examples from last weekend’s wars:
“Alex struggled against the recalcitrant airway for three precious minutes before the tube finally found its way home.”
Alex is an anesthesiologist struggling to get a breathing tube into a patient. The question is, does finally belong in the sentence? I put it there to indicate Alex’s thank-God-it’s-over feeling. Except I’ve already got a recalcitrant airway and a precious three minute struggle in that sentence. Do I need to tell the reader how relieved Alex is when the battle is over, or can I trust her to figure it out herself from the circumstances? I think finally is gilding the lily here, making sure the reader gets it. Out it goes.
“Alex struggled against the recalcitrant airway for three precious minutes before the tube found its way home.”
Better. Punchier. Let the reader have her experience without my interference.
“[The long snake of Propofol] joins the dark river of Mrs. Campbell’s blood in a languid flow along the interior of her arm, turning sharply at the chest wall toward her right heart, where it mixes with more dark blood and is forced into her lungs.”
I’m describing the flow of an anesthetic agent, Propofol, through a patient’s body. Considering it’s dry, technical medicine, I’m pleased with the sentence. But sharply sticks out to me. It’s accurate, but a mouthful. Is there something else, say, a verb, that reflects a sharp turn? Here you go:
“[The long snake of Propofol] joins the dark river of Mrs. Campbell’s blood in a languid flow along the interior of her arm, cornering at the chest wall and making for her right heart, where it mixes with more dark blood and is forced into her lungs.”
Cornering for turning sharply is a clear win. It means the same, but it’s more economical, and it adds the implication of a vehicle scooting along. I get my quarter back, plus a free racing car.
“Gradually and imperceptibly, the mysterious power he’d come to regard as his own worked in turn on him, as if day by day Alex absorbed the anesthesia into his own system and it began to etherize him.”
My main character again, suffering a side effect of his profession. I thought long and long about gradually and imperceptibly. The two adverbs working in tandem say exactly what I want, and the sentence would suffer without them. Still, two is a lot. I suppose I could have done with one, but I didn’t want to choose between them. I tried thinking outside the box by looking for a metaphor that contained both. Here’s what I came up with:
“With tapeworm stealth, the mysterious power he’d come to regard as his own worked in turn on him, as if day by day Alex absorbed the anesthesia into his own system and it began to etherize him.”
I like this result. Tapeworms are gradual and imperceptible, they’re in the medical game, and they have the added benefit of creepiness, which serves well here.
Finally, here’s an adverb I kept:
“’Any questions?’ the man said, apparently to Alex.”
Here I’m describing the first time Alex saw an anesthetic performed. Up to this point, the anesthesiologist seemed oblivious to him. Now it turns out he noticed Alex the whole time. Is anyone else in the room? Yes—but Alex is the only one who’s been watching the man. Apparently implies all this. That’s a lot of mileage to get from an adverb. It’s worth my quarter.
There you have it. We’re all writers, after all, even if only of grocery lists. And you don’t want adverbs on grocery lists. I haven’t talked about how one comes up with new verbs and metaphors. Perhaps another day. Good metaphors don’t grow on trees (my point exactly) after all. Is there a metaphor store? I wish.
Is there an anti-adverb dictionary? Sort of. Type in your adverb or adverbial phrase into a reverse dictionary and see what you come up with. Here’s a good one: One Look
Finally, I apply everything here to narrative, not dialogue. If my character is an adverbial type, I let him be.