Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Don’t Use Adverbs Freely (Or: What’s the big deal about adverbs?)

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’”

 – Elmore Leonard

 

What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Who gives a shit? Well, we should, for starters. Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view.

 

Advice about adverbs is to writing what the Red Scare was to sensible international policy from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Something based on a legitimate rationale (Stalin was a dick) carried to ridiculous extremes (the McCarthy hearings).  

The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut about half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. The number may be even higher than that. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this:

We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half.

 

Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true. So, what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with the reason the advice is right half the time.

1.     “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw the phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation.

2.     “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up.

3.     “Makes no difference.” This group includes at least half of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything.

Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”).

That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, which I’ll go into in a future post (or series of posts, because it’s hard to do a full-on jihad on someone’s ass in one blog post). But that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem. King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice. First throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. Rarely do you see anyone call them on their hierocracy, despite the fact that the next fucking sentence in The Elements of Style has two fucking adverbs in it. And not for effect. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. Guess what part of speech the second word of the foreword to the 4th edition of Elements is. If you guessed an adverb, you’d be absofuckinglutely correct.

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

1.     The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t make it one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. A linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. Thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs, the average for published material in that period was six. In other words, E. B. White is hypocritical as all shit about this stuff. Odds are, your first draft already contains fewer adverbs than his writing.

[Note here: I enjoy E. B. White’s prose immensely. He was a master of the craft. He was also horrible at explaining it and far too prone to pronounce minor truisms as absolute laws. Plus I had a college professor who believed White’s bullshit, no matter how many times I could point to White not following his own “Rules.”]

2.     The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. So don’t get sidetracked by the bullshit about keeping them out altogether.

What we should be doing. I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful. More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing, I might as well be looking at a note in my handwriting that says, “This dialogue did not do the job it was supposed to do.”

There is no need to post a comment about the great work of literature that uses an adverb in this fashion beautifully, I am certain it exists. I’m equally certain I haven’t written one yet, though that would be a wonderful accomplishment. We are looking at one sentence in ten million or more.

Actually, please do comment, because I would like to see it. Out of curiosity, though, not because I doubt its existence.

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12 thoughts on “Don’t Use Adverbs Freely (Or: What’s the big deal about adverbs?)

  1. Nina Kaytel on said:

    I beta for others and tend to focus only on the adverbs that weaken the story. In the piece I am reading now I went after “He smiled majestically” My comment: do you get a majestic image in your head with that single word?

  2. I once started an AW thread asking people to look through whatever book they were reading and to give the adverb count for the first few pages or so. Interesting results.

  3. Great stuff. I think there are too many folks out there trying to enforce rigid rules. They’re more like guidelines, actually.

  4. Thanks for the responses. Based on Lucie’s comment, I just looked googled the greatest opening lines in literature. I only had to go to number two before I found an adverb. No. 1 (“Call me Ishmael”) didn’t have one, which is ironic, because Melville uses them with abandon. [Right after typing that, I realized ‘with abandon’ is an adverbial phrase]

    No 2: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

  5. Pingback: Cutting | Nina Kaytel

  6. gothamette on said:

    Seriously wonderful advice.

    The proscription against adverbs is psychologically crippling. Being the skeptical sort, I immediately began looking through novels and found dozens of examples of adverb use.

    Let me supply but two. The first page of The God of Small Things is in my opinion brilliant. It sucks you right into the life of a town in Kerala. In the second or third paragraph, she uses two adverbs to great effect.

    A Confederacy of Dunces is littered with adverbs.

    Whether these are my favorite novels is irrelevant. (They aren’t.) But I can’t deny that many people think they are great. The authors told their stories in their way, adverbs and all.

    Thanks for the excellent advice!

  7. Great article! I’m a defender of occasional adverbs myself, and I think you stated the argument excellently.

    that said, I disagree with your reading of Strunk and White. I read the quote as encouraging a writer to focus on nouns and verbs rather than adverbs. He doesn’t say one should *never* use adverbs. Presumably if nouns and verbs can’t do the job effectively, adverbs can be brought into play. It’s a statement of philosophical approach, not an absolute prohibition

    As you point out, Strunk uses adverbs quite freely.

    • Diana on said:

      How weird this should pop up – I was just thinking of adverbs today, because I was faced with a writing sample that was full of them, and the passage stunk of pretentiousness.

      So, after defending the use of adverbs, I will revise it to this: all words should be scrutinized, but adverbs doubly so. Adverbs really are a special sort of word. They have a lot of power!

      • Thanks for commenting. Your last sentence says it perfectly — when they add power, they can be useful. Too many or any unnecessary adverbs dilute that, but intentionally used, they pump writing up.

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