Thursday, August 12, 2010

Don’t Let Tom Swift Into Your Social Communications - Tell Me a Story, Part Tres

Tom Swift and The Visitor from Planet X - dust...Image via Wikipedia
Before the advent of Farmville, many a budding writer (or critic) had fun making up Tom Swifties. Tom, a young scientist, had his literary adventures around the same time as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and his author fell into a trap well-known to writers since the beginning of dialogue. He worried about using the word said too much and tried to avoid repeating it by finding other, more exotic words: declaimed, asserted, emphasized and more. This tended to make some readers take the works less than seriously and even worse, to “improve” upon them by creating lines of dialogue that ended with a bad pun (usually in the form of an adverb): e.g., “Run now to the back of the ship,” Tom said sternly. I know - ow. And that’s the point of this post: keeping your small nonprofit’s social communications sounding vigorous and sidestepping the potentially evil influence of the adverb.

Why Are Adverbs Bad?

Of course, adverbs are not bad. They have their place and though their use can be complicated, most often it’s only their abuse that can make them evil. Adverbs are abused when they are used to modify verbs or other parts of speech that don’t need enhancement. For example, is it better to say “The brakes screeched as the driver struggled to control the bus” or “The brakes screeched frighteningly as the driver struggled to control the bus”? I hope you picked the former because the inclusion of the adverb frighteningly to modify screeched is unnecessary and waters down the drama.

Generally, social communication in the form of posts, emails, tweets, or letters don’t require the sense of immediacy that fiction writing can, but that doesn’t mean that emotion isn’t needed and that unhelpful adverbs can’t be shown the literary door. Seriously now, how many times have you written a sentence and used the word “very” in it? How about “We are very pleased to announce” or “our nonprofit owes a very great thanks to –“? Yes. “Very” is the most overused adverb in the English language. Kill it. Kill it now.

Vigorous Writing

The answer to avoiding the not-so-helpful modifiers is to use strong verbs, nouns and pronouns. One of the best pieces of writing advice I was given is to maintain a high verb to noun ratio. Because verbs are action words, they tend to imply motion, movement. There’s a world of difference between “there was an accident involving two cars” and “two cars crashed into each other”; between “the campaign has been very successful” and “the campaign is a success!”

When you’re editing your communications, do a search for all the words ending in –ly and remove them. Read through the piece again and see if it isn’t stronger. Examine your verb to noun ratio and when possible, rewrite to increase the verbs. Make sure that the nouns and verbs are appropriate and provide as strong an impact as possible. When adverbs are needed, use them appropriately to add detail, to qualify and show how, when, why, or where or for making comparisons.

Think Teddy, Not Tom

Teddy Roosevelt was considered a bold and vigorous U.S. President. You want him grinning back at you from your social communications instead of the intelligent, but ultimately adverbial wimpyness of a Tom Swift. That boldness will translate into a more immediate connection with the reader and connection is the aim of communicating.

“Bully for you. Bully,” the author said, pie-eyed. Ow.

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