Imagine you are making your favorite dish for someone really special. There’s this certain ingredient called for in the recipe (let’s say garlic) that just sets off the meal. You’ve received lots of praise when adding this particular ingredient, and you just know it’s what will win your friend over when he takes that first bite. So you add a dash or two as usual, but that’s not enough. This person is really special, and you want to make sure he can taste the special ingredient. So you keep dashing in the flavor until you’re certain it will stand out above everything else. He will have no choice but to notice it and be impressed now.
However, when he takes that first bite, his eyes bulge and his face twists as he chews. He nods with fervor and gives the thumbs up, but something is off. Is he simply excited over how delicious it is? Surprised, even? He grabs his water and gulps it down before looking at you and asking what you put in it. It’s clear by his expression and timid voice he’s nervous about something. Finally, he admits there’s just this one flavor overriding everything else, and it would be delicious if it wasn’t so strong.
You’re deflated. You tried so hard to impress your friend, but instead of letting the garlic accent the meal, you let it take over and failed tremendously. So, what do you do? You probably vow to avoid adding garlic to any recipe in the future and clean your fridge of the horrid stuff, but is that really the right choice? Had you neglected to add garlic at all, your friend would have eaten a bland meal devoid of the one thing your previous subjects all praised. Would he have finished it? Probably. Would he have remembered it? Probably not.
The key in this scenario is to always remember one three-letter phrase that keeps beautiful or delicious add-ons in check: less is more.
As a writer, I’m sure you’ve noticed how often people bash adverbs. I never even considered writing an article about them because of this bit of advice I usually come across daily:
“Cut all adverbs.”
“Adverbs weaken your narrative.”
“Adverbs are for the amateur writer trying to impress and wow the reader.”
These are all true to some extent. Too many adverbs do weaken your narrative. New writers do go overboard with adverbs because they think it’s a good way to impress the reader. Adverbs do wow the reader.
Yes, I said that. Adverbs wow the reader. Why else do you think they’re so overused now? Much like the analogy of too much garlic, we discovered what works and we went overboard with it. We want to be the best, right? So we do whatever it takes to stand out from other writers. We think, for a moment, that we can add more beautiful adverbs than anyone else and be remembered for our moving prose. But that’s not how it works.
Adverb inclusion is not the key to moving prose—or maybe it is, it’s a matter of opinion just like the garlic—but that doesn’t mean the reader wants to see nothing but adverbs. An adverb is more like a trump card you use when the narrative calls for it. A trump card is not to be used often, and you should exhaust all other outlets before you resort to wasting it. An adverb is your ace in the hole when you want to write something worth remembering . . . something worth quoting.
Here are two examples of times when adverbs were used effectively:
- “When we force something to fit where it doesn’t belong, it breaks. When surrounded by people who can’t appreciate our beauty, humans essentially do the same.” —Kayla Krantz
- “The heavy ache in my chest suggested that I was simply trying, and failing, to trade one heartbreak for another. While I still waited for my mind to accept the good news and relinquish all the pain it no longer had reason to feel, my stubborn heart tightened its grip on the past, refusing to forget. It happily lapped up this new betrayal, these freshly severed ties to another I’d loved with such devotion. I never would have imagined that in gaining what I thought I’d wanted most, I would lose something of equal importance, finding myself right back where I had begun.” —Jessica V. Fisette
This is my opinion, and as you can see, one of the quotes are written by yours truly. However, Kayla Krantz’s quote has stuck with me for two reasons.
Number one: It’s true. There’s no doubt the reality of these words resonate within me and will continue to do so for days to come.
Number two: That adverb cannot be removed.
Every time I think back to this quote, I think of the adverb. The editor in me tries so hard to remove it, but it doesn’t read the same. And the writer/poet in me smiles because I can’t take it out. Without that adverb, the entire quote loses something—it loses a huge part of what makes it memorable.
I had planned to write an article on why adverbs are bad, but I have to admit this quote changed my mind. Then, I remembered an ad I created a while back for my upcoming release featuring the second quote, and again, tried to reread the quote without simply and happily. The intended meaning/effect is lost.
But one thing I have to point out is how much Kayla and I both try to avoid overusing adverbs. The reason the quotes aren’t filled with five adverbs to every verb is because we KNOW less is more. The adverbs that made the cut were carefully selected and strategically placed. There was a time I would have added multiple adverbs to that quote, and considering how old it is and how many times I’ve edited it, there were probably a few more that met an untimely demise as I honed my skills as a writer.
So remember, less is more. Don’t purposely choose a weak verb so you can spice it up with an adverb. Don’t run to the thesaurus so you can find all the different ways to exchange sprinted for speedily, hastily, carelessly ran or any other combination of a weak verb with multiple adverbs chasing after it. Sprinted is always more exciting than ran, no matter how many pretty helpers you tack on. But don’t neglect them altogether. Adding a strategic amount of adverbs to your narrative can help it feel well-rounded and read smoother.
How do you handle adverbs? Are you a fan of using them to achieve poetic prose, or does the very sight make your editor’s eye twitch? We’re interested in hearing your take on the topic in the comments!
FIRST QUOTE FROM KAYLA KRANTZ’S RITUALS OF THE NIGHT SERIES:
SECOND QUOTE FROM THE ALDURIAN CHRONICLES:
Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.
You can follow her by clicking the links below.
“People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”
When I was in elementary school, I cheated. I cheated when I was forced to participate in spelling bees. A pastime it seemed my teachers thought was the most fun a student could have. I didn’t. And no, I did not write words on my palms or sneak a peek at the teacher’s word list. I purposely misspelled words that I knew how to spell so I could stop playing.
Spelling was never fun. Science was fun. Spelling was tedious, science was exciting. The quicker we got through the English lesson, the quicker I could do a science experiment.
I managed to get by with my little scheme for a while but never try to outwit a teacher, it rarely works. She caught on, and I had to play without missing words she knew I could spell.
The truth is I did well in English and literature, but my focus was elsewhere, my loves in school were science and chorus. Consequently, my knowledge and skills in grammar arrived by rote, not by interest. I should have been wiser.
Grammar is the foundation of communication. Without proper grammar, our thoughts cannot be expressed except as incoherent ramblings or incorrect meaning. I learned the hard way that grammar mattered in all aspects of life.
As a college freshman majoring in a science discipline, I took my first exam in Microbiology 101, my major. I was certain I had done well, plus there were ten bonus points. When I arrived at the class lab the day following the test, the lab instructor informed me that my professor wanted to see me.
Entering Dr. Weaver’s cramped, dark office crowded with antique scientific equipment, I was petrified. Maybe I hadn’t done as well as I thought. He motioned for me to sit and then handed me my exam. I had gotten a score of 103. Relief washed over me, then concern. What had I gotten incorrect? I knew the material.
Dr. Weaver noticed my confusion and smiled, a rare thing for him to do. He told me that I had done very well, but he wanted to discuss what I had not done well. Spelling. He had circled a few scientific words but told me he did not count off for spelling those words during the first semester, everyone misspelled names of bacteria. I misspelled seven common words, and he took a point off for each one.
He explained that while I had an excellent grasp of the subject matter, I needed to understand that how I presented my thoughts would influence how people perceived my credibility. Words matter, and the grammar used to structure those words matter too.
Let’s look at one of the classic examples of how grammar affects the meaning of sentences.
“Let’s eat grandpa” vs. “Let’s eat, grandpa.”
I doubt anyone doesn’t see the issues with the lack of a comma in the first sentence. The reasons for proper grammar are obvious.
General Reasons to Practice Good Grammar
In general, proper grammar is essential to communication, which, as stated earlier, is vital to all facets of life. The above example concerning grandpa shows how we emphasize ideas conveys meaning. For our thoughts to be understood, they must be conveyed with clarity and precision.
In business or social situations, first impressions are important. We are often warned ‘not to judge a book by its cover,’ an idiom that cautions us not to judge people by their appearance when first meeting them. First impressions no matter how hard we strive to be unbiased do matter. Whether the first time someone meets you is in person or via the written word, how you communicate with them is a sign of your intellect and education.
Proper communication also provides credibility, crucial as you build a career or a personal relationship.
Grammar for the Writer
Ask writers for their pet peeves about grammar and the list is endless. Confused words, dangling participles, incorrect verb tenses, their vs. they’re vs. there are among the errors cited. Yet, ask these same writers if grammar is important when writing and the results can be confusing. The answer is often no.
One of the components of writing is referred to as the writer’s voice. According to the website Pub(lishing) Crawl, “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can be thought of in terms of the uniqueness of a vocal voice machine.”
This definition is why there are conflicts over how writers perceive grammar. We develop a unique manner of presenting our work. The voice we present to the world is ours and ours alone and at times, to impart our personalities we may break the rules. We may write a sentence of a single word or offer a fragment of a sentence for emphasis. Poetic license allows us to depart from convention.
A bit of liberty in writing complete sentences for emphasis is one thing, but we have discussed that grammar increases clarity of meaning and raises our credibility. These two concepts, one writing correctly and the other taking poetic license, seem diametrically opposed yet remain an issue of contention among writers.
My opinion is that dialogue can be written as people talk, in slang, in sentence fragments, keeping grammar deviations to a minimum. The narrative of a story, however, should follow proper grammar.
As important as these general reasons for using good grammar are there are specific reasons for writers to understand the value of communication.
- The ‘experts’ who offer writing advice suggest that we write our first draft without concern about grammar or sentence structure. We should write to get the story out. Errors can be corrected on subsequent edits. I disagree. I think we should make a habit of using correct grammar from the beginning. The editing process is difficult enough without adding to issues that can be dealt with as you write.
- You will be offering your manuscript for review by beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. The novice writer with little experience needs to establish credibility. Sending a manuscript for evaluation with punctuation and spelling errors and poorly constructed sentences will not instill the confidence necessary to be taken seriously. That is not to say that any writer, regardless of experience, should submit a badly written manuscript at any time. They should not.
- Many of us write simply for the pleasure of writing. The art of weaving words into a story brings a great deal of satisfaction. I suspect, however, that we also write for the pleasure of others. If we want our readers to become engrossed in our stories, root for our heroes, then give them a well-written book. If it isn’t well-written, it will be left unread.
- The last reason to practice good grammar, respect for yourself. Writing a novel is not an easy task, but if you make an effort to create a well-written and well-crafted novel the results will be worth the time.
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”