In honor of Banned Books Week…

I’m going to commit atrocities on classics! I mean, I’m going to use passages from classics to which people have objected to illustrate the necessity of adjectives and adverbs. If you’d rather just learn more about Banned Books Week, the American Library Association has all you’d ever care to know right here.

So, I’ve taken the liberty of removing all adjectives and adverbs (as well as a few articles) from the following passage.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long–having money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about and see the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing the mouth; whenever it is November in my soul; whenever I find myself pausing before warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and whenever my hypos get me, that it requires principle to prevent me from stepping into the street, and knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Old Melville’s writing may not be for everyone, but that’s just…horrible. There are places where it makes no sense, and places where it says the exact opposite of what is actually true for the character. While it conveys the same general idea, it’s just not quite right.

Here’s the original:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such and upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Now we know that Ishmael’s run out of cash and, being rather bored and having nothing and no one depending on him, decides to run away to sea again. We now know what’s so compelling about the warehouses he’s loitering around, what he’s growing, and even the bit about the hats is somewhat more amusing. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) Not only is it November in his soul, it’s a damp, drizzly November. If you’ve ever experienced a damp, drizzly November, you can appreciate how he must be feeling. (If you haven’t, they’re about as much fun as they sound.)

Adjectives and adverbs help the reader fill in the gaps. A fiction writer’s job is to hand the reader the bricks (characters, plot-points) and the mortar (descriptions, setting, atmosphere, theme, tone) in such a way that the reader may reconstruct the story you are telling as effortlessly as possible.

Take a look at any of your favorite scenes from any of your favorite books. It doesn’t matter what kind of a scene it is–action, sex, maybe just two people chatting in a kitchen. Five will get you ten that a big part of what you get out of that scene comes from the way the author used adjectives and adverbs. If the scene was merely a recitation of the things within it, or if one character merely recapped it for another without letting you see it, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective or affecting. It wouldn’t be your favorite scene.