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Are adverbs really the devil? If they sneak in occasionally, does it mean the writer is lazy?

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Dogmas

Stephen King says,

“The road to bad writing is paved with adverbs.”

Soon, all good writers have to a avoid adverbs like they’re some sort of flesh-eating microbe. We just know that we’re failing — ourselves, our readers, our editors — if we use adverbs.

Sure, Stephen King has written a lot of best-selling books that give people the willies late at night. Do those books contain adverbs? Maybe a few. I’m thinking it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate one of the four building blocks of grammar and still write that many novels, but even if King is not a hypocrite, he’s still not the boss of me. I don’t buy that all writers must write like Stephen King. If only for variety’s sake, Stephen King should write like Stephen King and you should “do you”. I should “do me”. Other writers ….

You get the point.

Adverbs are overused in bad writing

Most adverbs modifying verbs are unnecessary. Consider this —

  • The radio was blaring loudly.
  • The radio blared loudly.
  • The radio blared.

Just reading those three sentences tells us all we need to know. We don’t really need “loudly” to understand that a blaring radio is loud. It’s “blaring” after all, and the connotation of “blaring” includes loud. This is an example of a poorly-used adverb.

For subscribers to the “show, don’t tell” school of writing, writers who use a lot of adverbs evidence weak writing skills. Adverbs carry strong descriptions, preventing writers from expressing themselves clearly. Use an adverb like “angrily” and you don’t need to describe what actions a character engaged in that showed they were angry. The reader is just given the information that the character is angry.

“Joe angrily mopped the floor” tells the reader Joe was angry, but “Joe slopped soapy water over the floor, slamming his mop into the corners while muttering under his breath” shows the reader Joe’s rage. It’s more work, but it engages the reader in a more visceral experience.

I don’t hate on adverbs and I agree we should do the extra work to show rather than tell.

Not All That Bad

That doesn’t mean adverbs are literally the devil and we writers — particularly novelists — need to avoid them at all costs.

Adverbs are often redundant. “This is very heavy” is a great example of an adverb that is unnecessary because it’s modifying a adjective that doesn’t need to be modified. Heavy is, well, heavy. However, there are times when redundancy is a useful tool for a novelist or someone trying to make a sincere apology.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • I’m so incredibly sorry.”

Depending on what the character has done, a simple apology won’t be enough. Red Kryptonite Curve ends with Ben telling Peter they can no longer be friends because his drunk driving hurt someone. Do you think Peter can go to Ben in “Dancing the Centerline” and say “I’m sorry” and all will be forgiven? He’s only going to have seconds before Ben walks away from him. “I’m so incredibly sorry” might give him a moment’s pause and Ben might listen to the next sentence or two if he emphasizes that he’s not just a little sorry for not listening to his friend in the previous book.

“I paid for the ticket. I’m attending the concert.” Okay. That conveys the meaning, but consider this —

“I paid for the ticket. I’m definitely going to the concert.” Technically “definitely” is an adverb, redundant, and unnecessary, but think about the meaning it conveys. It actually strengthens the feeling the character is expressing.

Most often, adverbs weaken the verb it is conjoined with, but not always. Sometimes, an adverb carries an emphasis that conveys a stronger sense of meaning. If you take “eliminate adverbs” as axiomatic dogma, you will miss the exception that might prove useful.

Gray Amid Black-and-White Rules

A rule that says “don’t ever” is black-and-white and traps us in corners we might not want to be in. Writing has no rules, unless you are a writer with a weakness you want to correct.

In truth, “don’t use adverbs” is a mutation of some excellent writing advice “be precise in your wording.”

  • The watermelon is very big.
  • The watermelon is enormous.

The second example is clearly more precise than the first. “Very big” is sloppy writing and doesn’t really give the writer the information he or she needs to know — that the watermelon is too big to lift. Both words are adverbs. One has a powerful place in the sentence while the other is filler.

At the risk of derailing this article into a discussion of passive versus active voice, the sentence would be better in active voice.

  • The enormous watermelon threatened to tip the wheelbarrow.

Although you could write the sentence without “enormous”, the adverb strengthens the image the sentence conveys. It doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the watermelon is just poorly placed. You know the watermelon’s size is the problem.

Adverbs can be important to the sentences we write, so long as we give them a role rather than use them as filler.

Adverbs are one of the four main parts of speech, together with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They each perform a special purpose. We construct sentences using these basic building materials. When we omit all adverbs from our writing, we struggle to give important information about not verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

Adverbs are often thought to end with “ly”, but any word or phrase modifying a verb, adjective or adverb is an adverb:

  • Rick smashed the zombie’s skull until his arm burned and flecks of rotted brain covered the sidewalk.
  • After surviving the exodus from New York, Joline would never trust another soldier.
  • Gregor stumbled back, avoiding Ilya’s grasp.
  • Janice faced forward because riding backwards made her motion-sick.

Almost no one objects to those adverbs because they convey necessary meaning in the sentence. Even “ly’ adverbs, used judiciously, can be powerful. Consider:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

That’s from the opening of a novel that is considered one of the best setting paragraphs ever written and look at all the “ly” words. They convey incredible meaning to the point where I don’t think the paragraph would have the same impact if they were eliminated.

Adverbs mean everything if you’re writing to a specific word count. As a novelist, Stephen King can describe events in detail. Short stories often need adverbs to stay under a word count, as do magazine articles. Journalists use all words judiciously because they have a tight word count (typically 350 words) and they use adverbs when it carries important information. If you wish to convey a clear meaning and place your sentence in a particular context, adverbs are a useful tool.

Dialogue with Adverbs?

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • You missed the train.
  • Clearly, you missed the train.

By reading the first sentence, we know that somebody missed their train. The narrator could be anyone – a ticket officer, a friend, a random passenger.

The second sentence shows a degree of criticism. The adverb clearly, when used in this context, can show some level of scolding or disapproval because the person missed the train. If the writer wishes to convey such a meaning then the adverb is preferred.

  • Diana is an emotional person
  • Diana is an overly emotional person.

Most human beings are emotional, so the first sentence really conveys irrelevant information. Who knows if Diana’s emotions are a good or bad quality. We can’t determine the narrator’s opinion on her emotional state.

In the second sentence, the narrator clearly believes Diana is emotional to an excessive degree. It makes all the different in the narrative.

Break the Rules When You’re Ready

I’m an overly educated writer (who just used an — gasp — adverb). Do you think I didn’t run across hundreds of rules while getting a Master’s degree in Journalism? Of course, I did.

Some people, especially editors, treat writing like there’s a checklist of dos and donts that must be followed. There are rules that are useful and then there are rules that render us weak writers writing weak books.

Of course, we should know the rules and make use of them to improve our writing. Of course, we should take advice from bestselling writers like Stephen King. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have a checklist of my known weaknesses that I use to improve my self-edits. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I also keep a list of items to bring with me on business trips, so I don’t have to waste a lot of time going “Do I have everything I need?” Checklists are useful tools.

The trouble comes when an established writer’s experience (or the experiences of many established writers) becomes dogma. You need to “do you.” Establish your own style rather than copying King’s. Hemingway wrote in a specific style that I admire, but I don’t write like him — unless my POV character is that sort of person. See, how that works?

Writing is an art and art has “suggestions”, not rules. Whether it’s Stephen King who has sold millions of books or me who has sold somewhat less (currently), our “rules” are just advice and, yes, some advice is worth following. Correct spelling, for example, is highly useful for conveying meaning to readers. Using active voice rather than passive voice will almost always create a better story. Don’t overuse adverbs is equally good advance. Don’t use adverbs at all is a bridge too far. Rules are sign posts, common elements we find in great stories, but there are also amazing stories that break some of the rules, rejecting conventions when it makes sense.

Be aware of the rules and the risks inherent in breaking them, but remember, you’re an artist. Trust your intuition and don’t be intimidated by the clipboard Nazis with the checklists who think stories should all be alike. Consider what they have to say because they may be catching problems you don’t, but don’t take their advice as gospel. Enjoy your creative freedom while remembering that rules can be parachutes that will save your life.

See, balance! As important in writing as in trapeze acts and checkbooks.

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