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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Truth 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.

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. The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut at least half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. 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 "avoid adverbs" 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 her 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 TON of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything. If a bell is clanging, we don't need to know it's doing so noisily, and if a burglar is creeping across a rooftop it goes without saying she's doing so quietly. 

 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, 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. By the way, the following sentence in The Elements of Style uses two adverbs. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. In fact, the second word in the book (in the first sentence of the foreword) is, you guessed it, an adverb. 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 go 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. White certainly didn't -- 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. A whopping thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs. 
  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. 
  3. My personal favorite: They're awesome editing tools. On my first draft, I regularly throw an adverb I plan to get rid of later into a sentence I know will need fine tuning later just to keep the writing going without agonizing over the best way to show my burglar "silently creep." It's like writing "Note to Self: show this better" without leaving the text to write myself that note. 

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 (and it's not uncommon) I know I've done something wrong with either the dialogue or the actions accompanying it. Since I don't believe in absolute prohibitions against anything in writing, I almost hope someday to find the exception to that rule.

Michael McDonagh lives outside Boise, Idaho, with an assortment of barn cats, chickens, turkeys, and horses, as well as a cadre of stray dogs and daughters who melt his heart. A charter member of the Humor Writers of America, his personal motto is: I write dystopian fiction, but everybody else thinks it's contemporary fiction. That's what makes it satire.


Unknown said...

It's refreshing to see someone take on this topic so thoroughly. While I also end up deleting a fair amount of adverbs in my own writing, there are some that end up staying because they add value to my work. So sure, show and don't tell, but don't swear off complete aspects of the language.

Unknown said...

You are so right Caitlin. After I read this article I realize I have some major editing to do. It's a great reminder for me as I am a newbie.