Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adjectives, Adverbs, and Sneaky Profanity

Purple prose, too many adjectives, relying on the handicap of adverbs: all no-no’s. We’re supposed to use strong nouns and verbs to cut back the clutter.

Instead of “She wore a dress of cloudy, gauzy, light purple material.” use “She wore a dress of lavender tulle.” Fewer words, more distinct, gets the job done.

Instead of “He menacingly walked toward her.” use “He slunk toward her.”

You don’t have to slash and burn every adjective or adverb known to man from your manuscript. They are legitimate parts of speech and have a place in writing. The overuse or misuse of them is the crime. 

Then we get to a seldom mentioned tangent, profanity. Now, I’m not going to touch the “Should we use profanity in writing?” debate. I’m talking about substituting profanity for adjectives and adverbs. I’m baffled this hasn’t been brought up widely. The use of profanity is something of a sacred cow on both sides of the moral debate. So without stepping on too many toes, may I point out that using profanity as an adjective/adverb crutch is just as bad as abusing actual adjectives and adverbs?

Example: *Bleep* kids. How was he supposed to sleep with all that *bleep* *bleep* racket going on every *bleep* *bleep* morning? Today he’d confront their *bleep* parents.

One could easily stick in adjectives and adverbs for each of those profane bleeps. I've read published books where page after page I've stumbled over sentences riddled with this kind of descriptive structure. A lot of authors and writers put in profanity where adjectives and adverbs normally go. It makes for a jarring read; as annoying as purple prose.

Style issue? Sneaky writing is more like it.

A person might as easily argue that their true voice relies on the same five or six adv./adj. in order to showcase their style. Writers are often warned to watch for repetitive words. They stick out and hit the reader between the eyes. I read a book once where the writer used the two words "ostentatious" and "redundant" repeatedly (ironic, I know.) The more I stumbled over those words the more they pulled me from the narrative flow. The same thing goes for adj./adv.-like profanity. It may show the writer's natural language use but it also reveals how limited the writer's vocabulary is. I can see a character or two having this kind of voice, but unless your story is first person in that character’s head, it’s lazy writing to use profanity in place of adjectives and adverbs all through the book. Use stronger nouns and verbs. You can get the snark or anger across just fine without the profanity tactic.

Profanity as an interjection, sure. Occasional use as an adjective or adverb, as long as the situation calls for it. But watch out for the tendency to prolifically use profanity, adjectives, and adverbs with the assumption that no one can criticize the practice because it’s your style. It’s still lazy writing. No moral or ethical debate needed. I’m being strictly technical here to unmask the beast.

It's a fine line, as are most elements of writing. Be true to your style as a writer and be true to your characters' voices but watch for repetition and adj./adv. abuse. Find ways to cut down your word count by eliminating these kinds of crutches and making the effort to find better words.

Anyone else noticed the overuse and abuse of adjectives, adverbs, and profanity in what they read or write? Have any good examples of when adjectives, adverbs, and profanity are acceptable? Please share.

1 comment:

  1. I like profanity as a general rule, makes me giggle, but only use it in my writing within dialogue or internal thought--never in narration.