The Creative Challenge

As a child, learning to whistle thrilled me. I could make music with my mouth! (Getting sent out of the classroom because I had shown kids in class, however, was less thrilling.)

But something else I learned, and something I never could have expected to interest me at all, happened in that same classroom. The teacher stood at the chalkboard and wrote a short sentence, then added two small slash marks in front of the first word and behind the last. “These are called quotation marks,” she explained. Those little marks meant the words they framed were spoken! They lifted off the page with expression while the words around them lay flat. Magic. I credit that revelatory moment with launching my nearly lifelong love of writing.

Fifteen years later I was an editor at a magazine in San Francisco, and grammar, by necessity, took my attention again. There was no editor to correct my grammar, I was the editor. Fortunately, language still excited me and the rules that help it sing on the page made good sense.

For writers, one of those rules is a creative challenge that pays off every time. 

Mark Twain is known to have said, “The adverb is the enemy of the verb.” Really? What’s wrong with an adverb? 

There are a few answers, but I’ll stick to narrative and tackle the problems with adverbs in taglines in dialog another time.

Using two words—one qualifying (or modifying) the other and thereby weakening it—isn’t as effective in writing as using a single strong verb or adjective. An example: “very” is an adverb. If you put “very” in front of an adjective or verb, you’re indicating extreme conditions. “The afternoon was very hot.”  The creative challenge in front of you is to replace these two words with a single good word that holds the meaning of “very hot.” How about “scorching”? Or “blistering”?  That one potent verb or adjective can have more impact. If a dog is cute, will a reader know it was cuter than cute if you call it “very cute”? Is there a single word that says it all? How about this one? The dog is adorable.

Let your words sing on the page.