Adverbs and Weasel Words

Renowned writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famous for his lyrical prose, hated adverbs ending in ‘mente’ ( ‘ly’ in English). His novel,  ‘Love in the Time of The Cholera’ contains none.

Why are writers so attached to these ‘ly’ adverbs? The writing cliche ‘kill your darlings’ is easier to stomach  – we all know it’s essential to remove irrelevant chunks of descriptions and plot tangents. But modifiers often stay in  final drafts.  I entered a very short flash fiction in a competition last month, knowing every word counts. One of those words was an unecessary ‘ly-er’. I couldn’t bring myself  to ditch it.  I’ve given the judges a reason for  ruling my piece out of the contest.

When literary agent, Lucy Luck,  judge for The Bath Short Story Award 2014,  advised writers to avoid adverbs in their stories, she created an anxious twitter storm from potential entrants. But there’s nothing to love about adverbs – the  worn-out bras of writing, they offer no lift or support.

There are exceptions like the first sentence in Colin Barrett’s ‘Calm With Horses’ which I studied in an earlier post. He combines the adverb ‘politely’ with ‘hammered’. It unusual and  works in context showing something about the character, which is essential to the story.

Like adverbs, ‘Weasel words’,  make  prose mushy and are also hard to remove. David Michael Kaplan in his excellent book ‘Rewriting’ –a creative approach to writing fiction made a list:

about, actually, almost, almost like, already, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even eventually, exactly, finally, here, just, just then, kind of, nearly now, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, somewhat like, sort of, suddenly, then, there, truly, utterly.

Remove them all – they weaken your writing.  Notice your favourite words from the list your resistance to deleting them.  Mine are ‘just’, ‘now’ and ‘even’. They sneak in on the edge of my awareness, and I often miss them when editing or think they plead a case for staying. None of these words deserve a place in tight, polished prose. Dump them.

The ‘find’ button on your word processor is great for picking up how often you use ‘weasels’. I don’t think any have slipped in here…