Adverbs aren’t evil…really, they aren’t

So adverbs. I won’t quote writing books here, or give super detailed advice. These are my personal observations of writing NO ADVERBS EVER to “eh, one or two won’t hurt me”.

Every writer has a love/hate relationship with them. Some eschew them to the point of obsession. Some throw them around every other word. For me, it used to be the former, but now I’ve mellowed somewhere in the middle. I don’t throw them around, but I don’t stress over them as I used to, sometimes sacrificing brevity and common sense to avoid having anything remotely “LY” in my prose.

Many many many writing books (and critics) preach that adverbs make your writing weak and blah (maybe not quite those terms) to the point you feel dirty reading one out loud and start counting how many LY words you might have in your manuscript. Fifteen is the limit according to a writing book I read somewhere. Some writers say less.

My writing group had a few anti-adverb advocators that would make the pissy “what’s that smell?” face when an adverb crept into our narrative. I recall a friendly debate over it when I got tired of them shunning adverbs like red-headed stepchildren. The result was a tie, though, more so because they seemed so “certain”, and I didn’t want to press the issue lest it escalate into an adverb war with multiple causalities. I think I got one of them to compromise about dialogue, as we talk in adverbs all the time, but my parting shot was this: Never follow a rule off a cliff.

There are no writing rules, really. Guidelines, style tweaks, and prose sophistication. Some other less known elements such as micro-tension and pacing. But when it comes to mechanics, the nuts and bolts of language itself, adverbs are the shiny doodads of your machine. Too many, and your machine looks pretty gaudy. Too few and your machine looks kinda plain. There needs to be balance, and avoiding an entire line of modifiers is simply…counterproductive.

Adverbs are informal, yes, lacking that punch a stronger verb or noun would have, but sometimes a stronger verb or noun isn’t what you need. Sometimes you need a little tell rather than a show (as adverbs tell by default, and we all know the “SHOW DON’T TELL” beast that bellows when a writer dares to summarize a segment of time, but meh, that’s another post).

My hard two rules for adverb use are these: If you can use stronger word/phrase without breaking your brain or agonizing for hours, then go for it. If you can take the adverb OUT of the sentence and still retain the meaning of the sentence: i.e., “He skipped merrily down the street” = “He skipped down the street” (as skipping is already merry in most cases), then omit it. But here: “The ghostly presence lingered a while longer, then disappeared.” If I omitted “ghostly”…the sentence doesn’t quite have the same meaning. “Ghostly” modifies “presence” and enhances it – a shiny doodad twinkling at just the right brightness.

The biggest peeve I have is when writers tack on a LY word to “said”. It drives me nuts. Published writers do it all the time – and a few favorite writers of mine do it way too much. “She said happily” is telling and vague. “She said, her eyes twinkling”, gives more emotion and a clearer image. The only exceptions to this that I’ve found, is “he said softly”…though I still say you could use (depending on context) something else to indicate the softness of his voice. But meh, it’s not something that would break a story for me. It used to once upon a time, but I’m not a literary snob anymore 😛

Side note: I’ve found myself using more and more adverbs the closer and deeper I get to my POV character. The narration almost acts as dialogue…and what makes dialogue natural and flow? Adverbs. A smattering of them, at least. And even superfluous ones like probably, and really, and fortunately. It helps create a casual intimacy, and allows your character’s voice to shine through the narrative a little more.

So that’s my two cents worth on adverbs. Don’t shun them. Utilize them – but do so with care. Know when and why you’re choosing your adverbs. Remember too many doodads distract, and you want your machine to dazzle your reader, not blind them 😉

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4 Responses to Adverbs aren’t evil…really, they aren’t

  1. angryzodd says:

    Yup, everything in moderation. A sign that a writer doesn’t truly understand the point of a rule is when he never breaks it. A few -lys ain’t gonna kill anybody.

    You’ve summarized perfectly all the exceptions to the -ly rule. Interested in what you’ll have to say about ‘Show don’t tell’ too.

    • maiafay says:

      I wanted to do one on “was” also, as it tends to be overused or avoided like adverbs. Again, I used to agonize for hours over that stupid word – thinking it passive when it really isn’t. It’s an inactive verb, and one you should use with care (as too many tend to be blah), but they aren’t evil as some authors I know make them out to be. I think Holly Lisle was the one who got me freaked out over the word WAS. She states to get rid of all of them. Yet, I read Stephen King and he throws them around in his prose all the time (as does Joe Hill, his son).

      But yeah, everything in moderation. I think when a writer reaches that point (with all the so-called rules), they are pretty secure in their craft.

      But I’m reading a book on Show and Telling (well, another one) and I utilize both when I write. It’s extremely useful for passing time in large segments until you get to the “scene” which would be the show. I’ll probably post something on it. It’ll be controversial though, lol, as I say it’s okay to tell, too!

      • angryzodd says:

        Those are pretty much the big three rules everyone likes to spout off: No adverbs, no was, show don’t tell. They’re good to follow in some cases, but in other cases… not so much. Could definitely use more opposing voices on the matter. I prefer to use telling to skip the boring parts too, so bring on the controversy!

  2. B. Corp says:

    The bit about adverbs creating a more informal, hence intimate PoV, is quite an interesting point. Should have been obvious, but it’s one of those “voice” things that are hard to pin down I guess 😛

    On an unrelated note, this discussion of prescriptivist advice about one should [not] do reminded me of Muphry’s law. Cheers!

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