Sunday, May 17, 2015

Adverbs, Writing Well, and "Hitler's Time Machine"

Lose the adverbs.


Good writing should be lean.

This November, I'll mark 60 years of being paid to write by publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. When seeking to write well, the challenge is not what to put on paper. It's what to leave out.

Until joining a writers' group a year ago, I spent little time talking or reading about writing. I'd read a book by Edwin Newman but didn't know the work of William Zinsser.

My main influence was eighth grade English teacher Miss Bingaman, to whom I owe a lifelong debt. Another influence was Foreign Service supervisor Donald L. Ranard, famous in events in Washington in the 1970s and the best boss I ever had.

Zinsser, author of the book "On Writing Well," put it this way:

"The secret of good writing," Zinsser wrote, "is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components."

Sentences needn't always be short but short is good. One of the most effective sentences in the English language contains two words:

Jesus wept.

The sentence provides no description. Yet when we read it, we see it. The picture is clear in our minds. No adjective or adverb would help. The sentence would not be improved by adding profusely, or any other adverb.

Elmore Leonard asked:

"In Ernest Hemingway's 'Hills Like White Elephants,' what do the 'American and the girl with him' look like? 'She had taken off her hat and put in on the table.' That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight."

I'd like to claim that my writing improved between my debut in the November 1955 issue of Air Force magazine and efforts in May 2015 to publicize my new novel, "Hitler's Time Machine."

The truth is, in most respects I probably peaked in the 1960s when writing for the men's adventure magazines or in the 1970s when writing about North Korea for Don in the State Department.

I had more to learn. I didn't know style manuals existed until 1990. Writing a newspaper column for Air Force Times, owned by Gannett, for twenty years from 1993 to 2013, taught me that newspaper work is different from magazine writing.

Like Leonard, like Zinsser, like so many others, my model is Hemingway. I worship John D. MacDonald and James Lee Burke. I'll never be able to write a sentence like Hemingway, MacDonald or Burke.


Except for myself, of the people I've named here only Burke is alive today. No one can write a sentence like Burke.

No one.

Don't even try.

Pore through "Hitler's Time Machine" and you'll see some good writing. You'll also see writing that's not so good. In the book, I occasionally lost sight of Rule Number One, which is:

Lose the adverbs.

1 comment :

  1. Adverbs serve a purpose...but like anything else in writing or in life for that matter...don't overdo it.