Writerly friends: if you don’t already follow Jessica Bell, you should.
An Australian-native fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Her poetry collection, FABRIC, was a semi-finalist in the GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS 2012 for BEST POETRY. Sellers like Amazon.com offer a selection of her fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including her pocket guide WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series, which offers user-friendly “how to” demonstrations to help writers hone their craft.
Jessica has a warm and witty online presence on social media sites like Facebook and Goodreads. She’s also part of the team that brings us Vine Leaves Literary Journal – a high-quality (and visually stunning – seriously, have a gander) online journal. Taken from the original meaning of the word, “vignette” (“something that may be written on a vine leaf”), Vine Leaves celebrates the kind of short, emotive writing that is too often overlooked in a literary culture fixated on the plot, the plot, the plot. By recognizing that there is also artistry to be found in a moment, a feeling, an array of words – and creating a venue for it – Jessica Bell became a hero of mine. So when she announced that she was launching a virtual tour for her upcoming projects, I happily volunteered.
Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Subversions of Adverbs & Clichés into Gourmet Imagery is the second installment in Bell’s WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series. In this NUTSHELL, Bell tackles those insidious, tricky little linguistic buggers that tend to slip into our writing because they’re familiar, easy, and ready-at-hand. We all do it: unconsciously, habitually, we rely on adverbs to tell (not show!) how something is done. Like a rat on a wheel, we use clichés to get our point across – and thus we keep our writing mediocre, rather than great.
But how, HOW, do we avoid the pitfalls of adverbs and clichés? By subverting them, Jessica says. Identify them, drop them from your repertoire, and replace them with something original. Give details in your prose to show that your character is mad, rather than having her say it angrily. Plumb the treasure trove of your imagination for metaphors to convey his love – don’t rely on his racing heartbeat or the truth welling up from the windows of his soul.
With Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell, Bell gives us thirty-four specific examples how to turn adverbs and clichés into vivid and unique imagery. This in itself is unique, so far as I’m aware – tons of writing books and blogs tell you what not to do, but with this guide you can actually see how it can be done – over and over again. Plus, it comes with prompts to practice writing subversions of your own.
Now, I don’t believe adverbs and clichés are always, universally evil. I raise a literary eyebrow when the media buzz tells us what is in, what is out, what defines good writing, and (even more fun) what makes writing bad. (Ten things you should NEVER do! Twelve things every agent HATES! Eleven ways to ensure you’ll never see your work in print EVER!) The pundits say it, it gets circulated and internalized and taken for gospel when, really, what’s good has a lot to do with context. SOMETIMES, clichés work. (They are clichés for a reason, after all). SOMETIMES, adverbs work (saying it quickly can be better than taking up a paragraph with original purple prose to demonstrate how it’s said).
AND, I shall be quick to point out, Jessica Bell says this too, right up front. She gives a very good argument for the whys and why nots of adverb and cliché use in the introduction – the best argument I’ve seen. The danger in my mind is that writers, especially new writers, may accept that these writing rules are (cliché alert) written in stone, and may learn not trust their own instincts, their own voice. But I use the word “danger” loosely – it’s not like writers are going to be blowing things up with adverbs. And there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules well – if nothing else, it may teach you how and when to break them.
The biggest critique I have of Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is that I wish the sample adverbs and clichés (of which there are over a hundred, I believe) were treated individually, rather than clumped together in thirty-four sample passages. Some of the passages are short, but many are quite dense, encompassing twenty or more “problem phrases” in one scenario. This clumping can make it hard to remember which phrases we’re subverting – I had to keep scrolling back and forth to figure out what Bell had changed from the “adverb” and “cliché” examples to the new, original writing. I even thought, in a (very) few cases, that the original “bad” writing was better, if only because the “better” samples tried to encompass so much.
For my purposes, I would have preferred one, maybe two adverbs and/or clichés per example. It would have been cleaner, focusing the reader’s attention on each problem phrase and an example of how to rewrite it, rather than making a dozen or more phrases depend on one another within a scene. It would have made the book longer (hence not a “pocket guide”) but way easier to use.
Still, Bell suggests that the book is meant to be read and then reread, several times over, and I can see how that would help the reader begin to pick out the nuances. And, indeed, that is how a writing book is meant to be used – often, and repeatedly. It is a reference, after all.
And for that, Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is a great resource, and a great buy. At a mere $1.99, I don’t see why any writer wouldn’t want to snatch it up. So go do that.