Chapter Five was a very short chapter in Steering The Craft, however, it's a very important chapter. So important, in fact, I completely missed writing a blog post about the chapter. I really am a terrible blogger.
Adverbs are probably one of the most talked about topics on Scribophile (besides the evils of Social Justice Warriors, whatever those are). But when Scrib talks about writing (a blessed but rare event) the evils of adverbs are invariably a topic of discussion.
I, for one, am glad that adverbs are added to the mix. Because the real topic isn't about the use of a part of speech but in what it means to use adverbs and adjectives in your writing. For the most part, adjectives and adverbs are an indicator of a weak vocabulary. Please note that it's not always so, but I do believe that one has to work from that perspective, and I think this goes for both adverbs and adjectives.
I received a critique that said "I don't know what basalt is. Can't you say 'black rock'?" I think it was a fair question, but I didn't ask Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars series to call piste a 'road of compacted snow'. As the phrase goes, "Words mean things" and especially now in the age of e-readers, a dictionary is just a few clicks away.
So, even though the idea has a bit of a bad-hair taint to it, I believe the writer is obligated to pick the best word. That means watching out for weak adverbs: quickly, suddenly, great, low. It doesn't mean that picking the obscure word from the thesaurus is the best bet either. There have been instances where I thought one word would be best, and then when I looked up its definition, there was some nuance to it that made it inappropriate. I guess my advice there is not to use the thesaurus without the dictionary. Again, with the online options available, there's faint excuse not to do so.
Sometimes, the adverb is all that's available or using less precise words they may fit the voice of the character as narrator or in dialogue. But even then, your voice should have a vernacular that your reader might have to work for, just a little bit. It's your job as a writer to make that work worth it.
So the exercise with this very short chapter was enlightening, though I found myself wanting to ask more questions -- what about adverb phrases?
We walked very carefully across the floor.
This one is almost the poster child for re-write unless it's part of dialog. "Very" is weak. How carefully? Oh very carefully. Very very, or just very?
Here is where I was born. That’s it. Right there.Hmm, this one is different. The wording here seems to generate a confidence between reader and writer, and I would probably skim right by this without worrying about adverbs or adverb phrases.
So is there a rule here? Probably not. Just that using adverbs and adverb phrases probably deserve a second look, with the case needing to be made for keeping rather than getting rid of.
So what about Adjective Phrases? Let's play with some examples:
That’s a lovely cake.I would personally rework this if it wasn't in dialog, or it fit the narrative voice. For a narrative voice, I'd want to understand what made it lovely? Was it the pink rosettes along the edge? The ziggurat design in the tiers? Insert more cake terms here. I'm not a baker. Then again, if your narrator or speaker isn't either, they might just call it 'lovely' or 'colorful' or 'a mountain of sugar and lard'. In short, that can't be all that's said about the cake.
That soup is pretty cold.'Pretty' in this sense is like 'almost' or 'very'. Kind of nothing words. How about tepid, or lukewarm, or chilled? In dialog, this is fine, but as narration, it seems weak.
Some people weren’t willing to pay extra to book a seat on the planeNow this one is a completely different kettle of fish. This adjective phrase is needed, and shouldn't invoke the same sense of outrage that 'pretty cold' does, because it qualifies the people. So its not cut and dried, and I think while there are some adverb phrases that are necessary, for purposes of the exercise, where one is to write 'chastely' it seems we have to use some adverb and adjective phrases, or else we're doing some interesting gymnastics to avoid them. I tried to come up with an example here for the above sentence, but I wasn't able to.
So, at the end of the chapter, not much changes. There are no rules, but guidelines, which probably won't change. The examples of what to look out for are very helpful, and the exercise is enlightening. I'd recommend it for anyone.