On Writing

The Adverbinator

This image courtesy of the fine fellow at merit badger.

During my tenure as a newspaper reporter I worked under three editors.

My third and last editor, Jerry, was an all-around great guy.

I was so devoted to my second editor, an old-timer named Jack, that I would’ve followed him almost to the gates of hell. (I would’ve driven him maybe seven eighths of the way there. That’s pretty much where my devotion to any boss ends, I think.) My point is Jack was the best boss I ever had.

My very first editor, on the other hand, was someone I wanted to shove into oncoming traffic.

Let’s say his name was Dan. He had many failings, but the worst, in my view, was his tone of voice. That voice, accompanied by a cocked eyebrow, made me feel as dumb as dirt. To be fair, I was dumb. I was a journalism greenhorn. But I already knew this without all of Dan’s nasty little reminders. What I needed from my editor was advice and guidance. That was not Dan’s strong suit.

My editor was a lot like this guy – only not as nice.

What really got my dander up, however, was the way Dan hacked away at my prose. One piece I wrote, about a nasty and tempestuous council meeting, was edited to make the proceedings look like an English garden party.

I stormed up to Dan’s desk. “What did you do to this?”

“I got rid of all your editorializing,” he said in that tone of his. “And you’re welcome.”

Ooh, I so wanted to knock those cocked eyebrows off his smug little face. “Editorializing? Where? Where was I editorializing?”

“The adverbs,” he replied. His tone suggested that I was more than welcome to add “stupid” to the end of his quote.

Then he waved me away. Dan had more important things to do now.

I sat at my desk and seethed. What a jerk. I wasn’t editorializing, I was reporting. I am a reporter, right? I was doing my job. That councilman said what he said and he said it “angrily.” I was there. I saw it. The guy was speaking through gritted teeth. His face was beet red. His hands were balled up into little fists. That’s “angrily!” What else could it be?

Then I had an epiphany.

Why, I wondered, didn’t I mention the gritted teeth and the red face and the balled fists in my story? That would’ve communicated angry much better than my “angrily.” And those little physical details really do paint a nice picture, don’t they? They sort of put you there in the room. You can almost see Mr. Councilman frothing at the mouth. My ambiguous, solitary “angrily” didn’t do that at all.

That “angrily” now felt like a pretty lazy way to get my point across.

A typical suburban New Jersey council meeting.

Then I arrived at another sudden realization, and it was a painful one: Dan was right. Adverbs are editorializing. When I wrote “angrily” I was asking the reader to trust my own interpretation of events without providing any evidence to back it up. I wrote that the guy was angry, but I never proved it.

Ugh. Dan, in his jerky, nasty way, mentored me.

My articles became a lot punchier after that. Dan edited less and I began to enjoy my job more. A few short weeks after beginning my self-imposed adverb purge, Dan accepted another job at another newspaper and I never saw him again.

I never did tell Dan how influential he was – but I don’t think I ever could. If I ever saw him again, I think my old urge to smack him upside the head would overcome me. And, just to upset Dan further, I would make sure to smack him happily.