January 11, 2012

Rules of Writing: By David

I recently read (and responded) to the following blog post by Keith Cronin. You can read the whole thing here.
A singularly unpopular view of adverbs: By Keith Cronin

I want to start out by saying that I don't necessarily disagree with Keith Cronin's stance. I simply have a different one.

Anyone who has ever been through a professional writing course (whether in college or beyond) knows that you will always hear some sort of writing rules put forth. Mr. Cronin's objection is to the rule against overusing adverbs, but I feel this gets into a larger issue than just adverbs.

The types of rules for writing one may hear in writing courses can make as much sense as "avoid switching tenses" to being as weird as "never write poetry about writing poetry."

In Cronin's post, he makes the claim that adverbs are not something to be avoided, but rather something to be embraced. And I agree fully. Just not to the extent that he proposes. And only once you've learned how to use them properly.

Adverbs, like any other words, can be used skillfully or they can be used haphazardly. In thinking of adverbs, I like to think of them as accidentals in music. That is, a sharp or flat that isn't part of the key signature. An accidental, when well placed, can completely change the tone of a piece of music. It can add a sad moment to a happy song, or vice versa. They can create dissonant sounds that pierce the listener to the bone and make them shudder. But if used haphazardly, they create a garbled mess that sounds off, and which pushes listeners away.

There is nothing inherently wrong with adverbs, or any part of grammar. I once heard a writing teacher state that there was never a moment where a writer should have to use a semicolon. If that were true, there would be no such thing as a semicolon! However, if a writer uses semicolons too often, they create endless sentences that make no sense (I for one, when thinking of semicolons, always reflect back to an old Dilbert comic strip where Dilbert creates a multipage personal evaluation that fits into a single sentence, in order to annoy his boss.)

The reason that every every writing course begins with rules is two fold. Firstly, it's because every writing teacher has a different view of writing and every writing teacher will assume that they are right. But since they all claim they are right, then we have to know that inevitably some (or all) of them will be wrong. So this leaves us with the second reason that every writing course begins with rules.

It is the same reason that a beginning art student is given a color wheel and told not to stray outside of complimentary colors. It is the same reason that a beginning music student learns a scale with no sharps or flats and begins building from there. As writers, we need to learn the basics before we learn the advanced rules before we learn that all of the truly great writers were breaking rules! If no one ever broke the rules we'd still be writing in the old Greek styles (and probably still in Greek!)

We learn the rules to learn how to break them skillfully and create something that goes beyond just writing. So that those choices we make go on to become art.

So as I started out saying, I fully agree with Keith Cronin when he claims that adverbs shouldn't be viewed as something evil. But I disagree in stating that I feel they should be viewed as something that cannot be evil. Think of it like the force. There's the light side (the rules side) and the dark side (the haphazard side). And somewhere in between there's Luke Skywalker who knows how to use and control both.

David is one of the founders and editors of Obsession Literary Magazine and the maintainer of Obsession's blog.

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