Hazel McHaffie

Aversions to adverbs

Phew! Another serious edit completed. I feel the need for some fortfication!

Somebody asked me this week if I read other people’s work while editing my own, and if so, did I feel an urge to correct their writing too? The answer is yes; and yes, indeedy!

This kind of close attention to every word and punctuation mark requires total concentration, and the story mustn’t suck you along or you lose focus, so I find it useful to take periodic breaks, coming back to the job with a clearer eye and harder heart. Reading other authors qualifies.

I’d been cutting adverbs and adjectives to the bone in Saving Sebastian for a few hours, when I took time out with Gabriel García Márquez’s, Love in the Time of CholeraLove in the Time of Cholera, and came across this. Dr Juvenal Urbino and his virgin bride are getting to know each other on their honeymoon cruise:
‘Then he knew that they had rounded the cape of good hope, and he took her large, soft hand again and covered it with forlorn little kisses, first the hard metacarpus, the long, discerning fingers, the diaphanous nails, and then the hieroglyphics of her destiny on her perspiring palm.’

My editor would have a fit! There’d be a red line gouged through the whole paragraph, not just the offending adjectives – three or four slashes, I shouldn’t wonder. This is just one example; I won’t bore you with others. But I seriously wondered what I was doing pfaffing about with far less offensive over-writing.

And yet … this book is famous, positively weighed down with accolades. And it was selected for World Book Night: one of just 25 titles chosen (although I confess, it wouldn’t have been my choice). 40,000 copies of it were distributed, created specially not to be bought or sold, but to be given and shared. DJ was given this one. He passed it to me. I’m passing it on.

Furthermore Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, three years before Cholera was published.

Eh dear. What does that say about excessive adjectives?! Sigh, that’s what I mean about goalposts. Who sets them? Do they even exist? It’s all so subjective.

Oh, but to be positive, I also came across:
‘A man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew on his buttons.’
‘Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability’
And all was forgiven – well, almost!

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2 Responses to “Aversions to adverbs”

  • Brian Reid says:

    Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist – Pablo Picasso.

    Current wisdom is that adjectives are some sort of immoral act, we have gone from ‘too many adjectives are bad’ to ‘adjectives are bad. This is foolishness. It’s very much like saying that all flagged dialog must be ‘he said/she said’.
    Moderation is the key, unless you are a genius like Marquez, in which case all rules are out the window.

    One possibility is to use no adjectives at all in the first draft and sneak them in during the edits.

    BTW I wouldn’t have chosen One Hundred Years of Solitude either.

    Best wishes on your endeavors,


    • Hazel says:

      Thanks, Brian. I guess we all need to take stock for ourselves and make decisions based on our preferences.

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