Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Writing Diet

This is not about food. Just wanted to get that out of the way up front, lest anyone expects recipes or exercise tips here. (I could give those out, but once down that path forever would it dominate this blog. Here endeth the Star Wars reference.) Instead, this is about how the general smart and sensible approach to diet and exercise ought to work just as well for writing. I point out, in advance, I am an expert on none of those three. I try and eat right, I try and exercise, and I write. And while I have done the third well enough to be paid for it, that alone does not make one an expert, as any tour of the bookstore and DVD rentals will tell you. I struggle at all three (including a recent bout of homophone issues in my writing).

My particular issue is with adverbs, and how they have become the poster child for bad writing. I'm not sure where or when it started (Stephen King, who I think in general probably knows a bit more about the craft of fiction than I do simply by sheer weight of experience, mentions it in his writing memoir On Writing, so it's been around at least a decade), only that it seems to be the default position of all and sundry. Fellow writers have offered up critiques of things I thought were perfectly passable - which I didn't write - based solely on the presence of adverbs.

I'm here to say I think they're wrong. I'm not saying all adverbs are good, and like anything else they can be overused, but they are hardly the harbringer of impending writerly apocalypses. Like diet and exercise, I think it comes down to proper mediation.

Every so often, a new diet or exercise trend comes down the pipe. It never lasts (anyone remember Tae-bo? Anyone still doing it?) but while it's around it's the end-all be-all for all conerned. Until the fad fades or the supposed science behind the diet is disproved. Take that whole Atkin's thing, for example. Carbs were bad. Carbs were evil. Carbohydrates would lead to the dark side, which apparently meant cake. (Is cake a carb?) Or at least potatoes and pasta. Consumption of carbs would lead to dirigible-sized pants.

Only... it turns out, this is not so much the case. Now, at the time, there were enough people saying "Hey, wait, this is wrong and probably a little unhealthy," but they were by and large ignored by the dieting populace. Like all dieting fads before, the experts were ignored in favor of celebrity endorsements, and the themed cookbooks flew off the shelves for a while. And where are they now?

As in most things, the key turned out to be moderation. Sure, you don't want to gorge on pasta, and like most things on the American menu portion size is an important determinant, but carbs themselves were not inherently bad. Several million Italians can't all be wrong, after all.

Adverbs, I think, are like carbs. Or a glass of wine. A glass with dinner is considered a good thing. Two isn't bad. Downing a bottle on certain occasions is also okay. Emptying your wine cellar in a single outing is usually frowned upon, however. There is a line to be drawn, a balance to be struck. Some might argue otherwise, as I know there are places where even a glass of wine a night would be viewed as the moral equivalent of a bender, or a single dish of spaghetti as an all you can eat deep friend Twinkie binge.

(And on a complete aside, I think no single food more sums up everything wrong with current American dietary trends than the deep fried Twinkie. No matter how good they may be - and I have heard they are quite good.)

Adverbs are good things. There, I said it. They can be overused, certainly, and they aren't always appropriate (pasta doesn't go with every meal, for example), but they are a valuable part of speech. You can't really write without them. Sure, they can become a crutch in lieu of better descriptions, and they do facilitate the slide into "telling" as opposed to "showing," and I will adamantly agree they don't belong in dialogue tags, ever. But they aren't inherently bad.

If, by chance, you think I'm wrong about this, I encourage you to pick up any classic novel. Gatsby, for example. Now go through and look at all the adverbs. The text isn't drowning in them, by any means, but Fitzgerald certainly uses them. (Do not highlight or underline in your book. Just don't. Your librarian will thank you.) As does any other writer, even that master of spartan sentences, Hemingway. I am nowhere near their league, but I figure if adverbs were good enough for them, they are good enough for me.

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