Writer’s Corner: Adverbs

So I figure it is about time that I wade in on this debate. Ah, the much beloved adverbs. To quote a man who has, in my opinion, been quoted a little too often on this topic…

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

Dear Mr King does not like adverbs. In fact, reading this, the first thing any new writer wants to do is go through their book and delete any of the buggers they can find. I find this an interesting position for him to take as his own books are littered with adverbs. Note the word littered, not swamped, that will be important later. Because see, this is where Mr King and I disagree. A book cannot exist without adverbs. The key is to not overuse them. An adverb, just like any other part of language, serves a purpose. If that purpose is superfluous (as I agree it often is in first drafts, first novels and apparently anything written by Morgan Rice) then it shouldn’t be there. You would never write a sentence, “That is right and correct” (well unless you are trying to sound pompous or you are a lawyer), so also you should never need “he whispered quietly” as one rather implies the other. And if you overuse an element then its presence is weakened and so is the writing. Much like starting every paragraph (or worse) sentence with your character’s name.

My problem with this debate is how very black and white people seem to find it. People like King make out that adverbs should be written out of the English language and that, to me, is wrong. English is the single most dynamic language in current use and that is what makes it so special and such fun to write in. It is rules like this that restrict this. I agree that adverbs are overused, and while it is a sweeping stereotype, I also agree that first time authors are the worst for it. I also agree that writing without adverbs can make writing tighter, and neater. For example “he said snappily” is far better written as “he snapped”. But likewise there is a great difference between “he sighed” and “he sighed softly”. It can’t always be context driven.

I read a rather comical post the other day on a forum I am a member of upon this topic. The sentence in discussion was “he fumbled clumsily with the buttons on in coat”. Now, in this case, I happen to agree clumsily is unnecessary as fumbled is a perfectly adequate describer on its own. However, this person posted back an entire paragraph that involved the colour, material and style of both coat and buttons. To me, that is unnecessary too. Not every sentence has to be artistic. It has to be tight, it has to be excellent and it has to add something to the story. It should not slow the story down. When your lead character is going into labour, that is the focus, not the colour of her husbands coat.

Personally, I think the move against adverbs has been too extreme. You can feel the presence of the editors in many cases. For example, in Jim Butchers work, you can see where he originally had an adverb and was told to remove it. You get “his looked down, furious.” Technically, very technically, that still passes for good English, but I don’t see why the extra ‘ly’ had to be removed. Likewise the difference between “she smiled wryly” and “she gave a wry smile” is so nominal does it make that much of a difference to the whole story when it is just a passing phrase? I don’t know the answer.

You read a lot of things like this…

“Definitely restrict their use in dialogue tags. Yes, adverbs were once quite popular as modifiers for the verbs in dialogue tags. But they aren’t popular for that purpose today. Adverbs paired with creative dialogue tags can come across as melodramatic or as amateurish storytelling. As the work of an inexperienced author.” (http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/01/15/what-about-adverbs-a-readers-question/)

And this is where I have a beef with mainstream edited/published/agented fiction. I read something the other day that saddened me. A girl posted that these days authors don’t have voices. Unless they are particularly bad writers (see Stephenie Meyer, Morgan Rice) or have fought like thunder to hold their voice (see JK Rowling who had to fight to hold onto just about every element of Harry Potter), you really can’t tell who wrote it anymore. If you pick up an Emily Bronte, you know it’s her within paragraphs. Jane Austin, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Dickens, all the greats. They have identifiable styles. I did an experiment. I picked up four crime novels off my mum’s shelf the other day. Two from one author, two from the other. And after three chapters of each, I could not have paired them off. They all sounded the same. And I think it is things like this adverb rule that is doing that. Writing is an art. It is an emotive, personal art. I agree that it has to sell. At least, if that is what you end game is. But I hate that now that they have a formula, publishers are turning everyone into a clone. I think this is why more and more people are turning to self-publishing as well. Because we don’t have to play in a black and white world anymore. We have discovered grey.

To go back to adverbs, I think the key is balance. Don’t not use them, but use them only when they are needed. Here are a few cases when I agree one hundred percent with Mr King.

1. Lazy Writing.

“I hate you,” he said loudly is weak.  “I hate you,” he shouted, is much more refined.

The thesaurus is there for a reason, use it. Adverbs should not be used to prop up weak images or lazy writing. That I do agree with. Phrases like, “said softly”, “ran quickly” and “shouted loudly” should indeed, as King decrees, be banned from existence as they offer nothing new. Though frankly if ‘said loudly’ comes before ‘shouted’ in your repertoire, you might want to consider a difference occupation.

2. Unnecessary padding.

“I love you,” he said lovingly can be cut to “I love you”, he said. 

However, context is also important.  For example, if he is caressing her face, then lovingly is implied. However suppose he has just slapped her. That changes the tone, if the words are meant as bitter or insincere then perhaps ‘said’ will suffice but perhaps also, a modifier would help.

3. They tell, they don’t show.

The old writing mantra, ‘show, don’t tell’. Adverbs are often used to do the latter. “he said lovingly” tells an audience, “he said, running his hand across her face as though in that moment they were the only two in the world” shows them. But don’t be afraid to use them if they can give you a nuance that you need in a moment, because that is what they were designed for. I think we all agree that “he jerked back” and “he pulled back” have two very different feels, I just happen to also believe that “he pulled back” and “he pulled back slightly” also do. The latter implies a hesitation. An unwillingness. A difference in the size of the movement. And yes you could replace it with “he withdrew his body from her in the smallest of movements,” or as is often done and frankly bugs me even more than repetitive modifiers “he pulled back, hesitant” but my tastes happen to prefer the version with ‘slightly’. As long as it is not overused, that adverb can still be strong.

4. Writing for writing’s sake

In this I mean that we all love to follow trend. And sometimes blindly. Phrases like “he smiled thinly”. Do you really mean thinly? What does thinly even mean in this context? Do you mean weakly? What image is behind that phrase? Or are you using it because you’ve read it so many times in that context you assume it means what you are trying to say because that’s how others have used it. To quote another excellent blog I read recently, it’s like telling a joke. If you have to explain the punchline, then it wasn’t a good joke in the first place.

So my advice, and certainly the middle ground I have since found in this debate, is care. Adverbs have a use. Just like you wouldn’t use a verb where you don’t need one, the same is true of adverbs. My advice is to be aware of them. Know you are using them and use them deliberately. I have found that if I choose to use one, then it is necessary at that moment, it is the ones I put in without thinking about it that prove to be superfluous in the end. However, I also believe that sometimes, it is in the tiny little ‘ly’ word that we find our voices.

Below is a list of adverbs I keep an eye on in my writing. They tend to be the ones the creep in under the radar…




Barely (Morgan Rice loves this one)