Adverbs, the next twist on my ongoing backwards journey to learn to write after I wrote my adult science fiction book. Similar to the first person, present tense debacle, the aversion for adverbs also caught me by surprise.
I learned that days before going to my first writing conference. My manuscript was
basically adverbland, and I was planning to attend two pitching sessions. What would be the point? Pages and pages of what seemed to be fine now stood out like a sore thumb.
For a while I was almost convinced that a writer should never use adverbs, filtering words, pronouns, passive verbs, adjectives and so on. We’re
only allowed to use one of the hundred different ways to move your character and, occasionally, the verb to be, in the past tense, but you should feel really guilty about needing it.
Worse, this discovery not only affected me as an aspiring writer, but it changed me as a reader. Several novels filled with adverbs have a special place in my heart, and now I cringe anytime I’m reading something that is
clearly overusing them. It’s like when we learn reality shows are scripted. You still watch them, but now the innocence is gone.
But wait a minute: even recent bestsellers don’t shy away from using adverbs. For instance, in Blake Crouch‘s thriller Dark Matter, doors close
softly, moving imperceptibly and then rattling ferociously inside their frames. People step slowly, methodically, and the only sound is the lonely whisper of the wind. People laugh, but not derisively, smile, but only politely, mercifully, or are horribly lonely. Anyway, you get the idea.
Adverbs are Weeds
Blogs about adverbs are a dime a dozen. So why not throw my hat in the ring, starting with the reason adverbs are considered bad?
If you do any research on the subject, you
quickly learn about Stephen King’s famous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft where he literally says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. He compares them with dandelions on your lawn: a couple make it look pretty, but you quickly see them as what they are – weeds – once they cover most of your yard.
especially against using adverbs in dialogue:
Your dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own, without the need of adverbs as crutches. Note that’s true for adverbs supporting dialogue, but not adverbs in dialogue. Your character may say whatever he or she wants.
Verb, do you even lift?
Besides dialogue, adverbs are often used to modify weak verbs:
Instead of walking
quickly, the character jogged, or hurried. You don’t look angrily; you glare. You don’t speak loudly; you yell, scream or speak up. You don’t lazily write; you procrastinate, a lot, while looking at cat pictures on the internet.
In summary, adverbs make your writing boring. Weak verbs make me think you didn’t even try, your writing is sloppy, your need for adverbs as crutches is a turn-off. You’re a lazy amateur that should hide under a rock and disappear after you burn your manuscript and erase the memory of every person who read it.
Now, hold on!
The fact that I’m a lazy amateur doesn’t mean my novel won’t sell. It’ll probably fail, but for other reasons.
Writing is often compared with painting: an author paints with words. And, like painting, there are several different techniques and well-known masters of the craft. But while we can all agree Van Gogh‘s paintings are in a class of its own, we cannot deny the success of paintings that are considered tacky, and some may even say botched.
In fact, some people
actually like or don’t care about adverb usage. As an example, Colin Dickey, unapologetically adores adverbs, and I love his article on Slate:
My point is – yes, if you want to publish a literary masterpiece you probably should do it right:
literary fiction tends to be written with emphasis on prose style. While genre fiction is “transparent” (readers can see through the text to escape into the story itself), literary writers want the reader to notice how beautiful the writing is.
But not all novels are masterpieces, not all masterpieces are successful, and not all successful books are well written. Many popular books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey
definitely overuse adverbs:
Yet, there’s an audience for them, a big one. Twilight was the best seller book of 2008, and Amazon UK sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than the whole Harry Potter series combined! And Speaking of Harry Potter, which is a modern classic, it also has its share of adverbs. When Stephen King reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he said:
In the end, there is no bad genre or style; it’s a matter of taste. Most authors write because they like doing it, and we should write in a style that makes us comfortable, while at the same time learning and improving our skills.
You may not like country music, but I bet there’s at least one country song that melts your heart when you hear it. Think about it: we live in a world where The Maury Show has more viewers than a BBC documentary series.
After the conference, I spent two months getting rid of unnecessary adverbs from my own novel. It surprised me how often I used them in dialogues, and I removed them all. Still, I
proudly left several of them, pending editing. Even critics like them in some cases:
Instead of using adverbs, we’re supposed to paint a more vivid image, and perhaps most readers prefer it. I’m the opposite: I like vagueness unless it matters, and I hate reading details that have nothing to do with the story. It’s nice to know they’re having dinner on a red mahogany barrel table that the main character inherited from his grandfather who fought in Korea, but if it’s not contributing to the story why do I have to know that? It’s just a damn table, and they
cozily had dinner on it.
Anyway, my story
clearly improved after I trimmed the adverbs. My paintings are stick figures, but I hope people will have fun when they see them, as I get serious about my writing.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Thanks to my lovely daughter for the stick figures in this article!
My initial title for this post was Surely, you’re joking! However, you’d be surprised to learn that there are already several blogs about adverbs that do this obvious joke. So, I decided to try something different. Anyway, please don’t call me Shirley.
*Yes, I know that not all adverbs end in -ly and I
only marked the ones that do. But didn’t you read the part where I explicitly said I was crazy lazy?
**I know it’s not a painting; it’s a restoration.
Check some of my other posts below:
Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More
importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.