Auld Lang Syne

Sunday, June 12, 2011

so let's talk about adverbs

Yesterday was the day for discussing the value of adjectives in poetry. I feel the need to balance that with a bit about adverbs, mostly the "ly" words that some novice poets seem to use as crutches in their poems, propping up lines that are weak and lacking in strong image or activity.

Oh yes, I have been as guilty as anyone, not just in poems but also in my prose. It is so easy to say "he looked lovingly at.." rather than to search for a way to show it with action, either via a strong verb or other imagistic mechanism. So how to do this?

He gazed at her lovingly, fell for her in that moment


His eyes softened as he held her face
in his hands, love leaped up and overtook him.

Which do YOU think is better?

Here is a list of to-be-avoided adverbs ("ly" words)

lovingly, softly, earnestly, carefully, sparingly (there is irony in this one!), terribly, greatly, lavishly, etc etc. You get the idea. Cast those adverbs "deeply" into the sea1 Ha Ha!

There is also a problem for many with the non-"ly" adverbs, those which modify and supposedly enhance adjectives. WELL.... if you are overusing adjectives, my guess is that you are tacking on a few very and really boosters to some of those.

her dress was really red
his speech was very aggressive
they bought a very huge gas-guzzlin'  truck

What do the adverbs add in these? NOTHING that a great image wouldn't serve better.

Her dress, scarlet as her cheeks, shone in the half light of the dance hall...

His voice, an assault on everything decent...

They thundered off the lot in their blue F-10, tank draining as they drove away. She only cared that it matched 
the color of her eyes.

Which seems more interesting to YOU?

As an editor and poetry coach, I see these problems all the time. I have worked to remove adverbs from my own poems, sometimes falling into the trap, but this happens more when I am being a lazy poet. It is easy to do, a quick fix so to speak for a bigger problem: weak poem.

I believe that it is one thing to let the dam burst in a first draft where one is getting down the essence of the ideas in a poem, another to take the easy route and not revise them out of existence. A good plan is to write everything that you think might want to be said. Give yourself permission to over-write. But then, and this is where the wheat and the chaff separate, do the work of revision: eliminate, trim, cut, slice. Get those adverbs gone. Try this:

Take a poem you have already written and circle all the adverbs. Rewrite with none of them. What has happened to the poem? If it is strong enough, you might be done. If it seems to flatten out or if what you wanted to say seems to have become vague, you have more to do. You need to strengthen your images and activate your verbs. This is a wonderful way to diagnose adverb sickness.

Tomorrow we will talk about "throwaway words." Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a fan of adverbs. But like all parts of speech, they must be used deliberately.