Fear the Adverbs!

“Not adverbs! Run away! What are you thinking putting adjectives in a story? People ain’t got time for that! No, you need verbs and nouns when you write stories. That is only because the English language requires it.” This is a hyperbolic example of what it can feel like being a writer attempting to get short fiction published in literary journals.

I get it. Editors have a lot of stories to sift through. Too much description in a 1500-word story bogs it down. Also, adverbs tend to present a “telling” writing style more than a “show” writing style. Obviously as writers we need to do the latter.

As with all things in life there is a balance, but it often feels like editors are fickle. “We want beautiful prose!” they often state in their guidelines. Then if you read on the blogs they post, they complain about adverbs and adjectives. I’ve established that I understand the intent, but the beauty in prose comes from mostly adjectives and to a lesser-degree adverbs. 

If anyone reads a book/short story written from about 1980 and earlier, one will find that adverbs and adjectives litter the page. Why the shift? Modern taste for one and the internet. It is a well-established fact that reading comprehension on the internet is lower than physical media. Fiction online needs to work harder to hold a reader’s attention. Each word needs to be necessary and carefully placed. 

Another aspect is that editors don’t really want to “edit.” Editors are in truth, gatekeepers. Better, more professional magazines still edit, but even those its light at best. Most cite time and resources as the reason, and I get it. However, it’s painfully obvious when magazines don’t edit stories. 

No matter how talented a writer is, a story will always need tweaking before publishing. I’ve gotten stories published only to look back later and cringe at things that should have been altered or removed. Being a writer means learning the expectations and being an editor means editing, not merely (ahh there’s another adverb!) being a gatekeeper.

In the publishing world there’s a tug between authors and editors. Publishers want unique, concise pieces. Authors often feel constrained and unable to express themselves. I feel there is a gap in understanding sometimes, despite the fact that editors were all writers (and might still be) at one point.

These are just some things I’ve noticed. What have you found in the publishing world? Let me know your thoughts.


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