An Analysis of Adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
-- Stephen King

What is it with adverbs anyway? Why all the fuss? Adverbs are a sign of weak writing, they say. And believe me, "they" say a lot of things on the topic of writing.

Adverbs modify a verb, adjective or other adverb. So the lesson goes, if you need to further describe a verb, adjective or - *gasps* - another adverb, then you're not using a good enough verb or adjective in the first place. They are writers' ketchup, the all purpose means of masking a substandard meal. Good steak doesn't need ketchup, and even a phenomenal burger tastes great even without the red stuff.

The notion that adverbs show a lack of effort is fully ingrained in my head now, whether I agree with it or not. For many of us, trying to avoid adverbs while writing a first draft is a challenge, and often brings out our Evil Inner Editor. Sometimes an adverb is the first thing that pops into your head, and if you're still in your first draft (and you do revise), what's wrong with decorating a verb so you can get on to the next sentence? You can fix it up later, right?

Consider a certain SM Blooding, a.k.a. my buddy Frankie. She is one my favorite writer friends, and is an incredibly prolific writer. We critique each other's work, although she does way more for me than me for her. One of the first occasions a critiqued one of her chapters, I didn't really know her that well. And I pointed out all the adverbs, because that's one of the many things we do. Her response took me aback. In her opinion, adverbs were part of the English language and were therefore at her disposal. This was such a rock star reaction, and perfect for her. I should add that Frankie's books are not exactly rife with adverbs.

Speaking of "rife with adverbs"... Harry Potter - all seven books - seriously rife. Stephen King reviewed a couple of the Harry Potter books, at least one of which appeared in the New York Times. He adores the Harry Potter books, but he has complained about the adverb count. I've noticed more English writers using adverbs liberally, and had one such writer tell me that English writers as a whole use adverbs like condiments.

While the anti-adverb movement was trying to brainwash me, I had begun reading Philip Pullman, specifically His Darker Materials. The adverbs jumped off the page at me, slapping themselves in the chest and shouting, "Look at me, I say!" It was so distracting. I eventually started over, this time trying with all my might to ignore the devilish "-ly" words.

When I write, I'm cognizant of the adverbs I put in. In first draft, only the ones I cannot immediately think of an alternative for, or I am unable to drop outright, make it onto the page. On the whole, I don't think there's anything wrong with the occasional adverb. Anything in moderation, right? I have one exception, though.

"I hate you!" she shouted angrily.

Adverbs decorating dialog tags. The example above is so obvious in its badness that I won't even comment. I avoid these suckers like a blast-ended skrewt fed on a diet of chili.I think the rewrite below is an example of avoiding the accursed adverb-decorating-dialog-tag, but also illustrates "showing" something without using an adverb to do so.

She glared at him, her fists balled at her side. "I hate you!"

I allow myself one exception to the adverb/dialog tag thing. We're told to avoid fluffy dialog tags. Stick with said, replied, and asked. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the reader blink. Worse, you might use a tag that's not an actual act of speaking, which is what dialog is all about. I'll sometimes employ an adverb for a subtle description of the speaker's tone of voice.

"I hate him," she said softly.

She's not whispering. Oh, there's still ways to accomplish the above even without the adverb, but you get my drift?

So, what are your adverb rules? Where do you think it's okay/not okay to use them?


Dawn Embers said...

I actually discussed this topic on my writing blog. It was one of the first couple of posts in fact. I find that since I had an experience of being in a critique group, I notice adverbs more. When I am writing allow myself to use them, but sparingly. The biggest issue I have when I see them in people's short stories and chapters is that they overdo it. For me, two in a row is a bit much. I'm not even a big fan of two in one paragraph but it depends on the paragraph. But the two in a row is a set issue, same with having too many descriptives. It's not needed and doesn't help the story as much as the writer might have first thought when writing the sentence. Granted, there might be a rare occasion when the two rule can be thrown out, like any rule. But I still stand believe it.

Saidisms I haven't quite decided how I feel overall. (He said versus He yelled and such.)

When it comes to adverbs, they have their places in writing, just don't overdo it.

Kristan said...

I'm with you: Adverbs are not evil! Thank you for saying it.

Jay said...

Thanks for your comments, Dawn. How about two adverbs in the same sentence? I actually get a chuckle out of those when I critique.

Kristan - they are like any tasty treat. Too much of a good thing, right?

BJ said...

As your friend said, adverbs are a part of the English language, a tool in our writer's toolbox. Everything in the English language is. It's what you do with it that's important.

Adverbs are not evil, though they are often overused. But anything can be overused: commas, passive verbs, repetitive words, and so forth. That doesn't make them evil. It just means that a writer has to go through his entire toolbox to make sure that nothing is overused, and that everything reads smoothly and in a fresh manner.

I believe the focus on adverbs creates its own problem. You mentioned it yourself -- you can't see an adverb now without it jumping out at you. But is that how the reader sees it?

It's like judging a dog show: if you're an expert and know how a dog should move, then you'll see a wrong movement in every dog you see.

But we're not writing for experts, and most dog-owners could care less if their dog doesn't strut or if his foot moves just a bit out of form. People who read for pleasure -- or own dogs for pleasure -- don't care. As long as the dog isn't limping and as long as the story flows without losing their interest, the little things don't matter.

I believe people would do far better at writing if, rather than picking out imagined faults and details, they worry more about the overall reading experience.

Yes, too many adverbs can be a sign of weak writing, as can too many passive verbs or too many commas, but if you concentrate on making your writing as strong as possible, no matter what tools you use, you'll become a stronger writer.

Instead of picking out adverbs and saying, 'how could I make this stronger?', look at *everything* and ask yourself, 'how could I make this stronger?' How could I make this thought stronger, this word, this paragraph, this dialogue? How can I make this flow better? How can I improve the reader's experience?

I think that's more important than two little letters (ly) at the end of a word.

My two cents. Sorry for the rant.

Jay said...

BJ - It was truly a good rant, and I total(ly) agree with you. It really is mechanics, isn't it? And mechanics are straightforward to fix. Boring characters are not. Plots that go nowhere are not. A lack of engaging voice is not. That's where the focus should be. I think only writers notice the adverbs jumping off the page. But everyone notices strong writing.

Serious Wanderer said...

I like your guidelines -- avoid adverbs when they're an excuse for laziness, but allow them when they clarify in a way that would otherwise be complicated.

I think adverbs are most effective and worthwhile when they're unexpected or seemingly incongruous -- and/or when they add some information or tone that couldn't simply be presented through a more specific verb or a more active description.

(Like your phrase "not exactly rife"; the adverb communicates a certain tone, without which the sentence would be less compelling.)

Also, I think that pure intensifiers (really, very) should [almost] always be avoided.

Jay said...

Good points, Wanderer, especially on the pure intensifier. I do think they're okay in limited quantities in dialog because many people speak that way.

Annie McMahon said...

After having so many reviewers highlight all the adverbs in my chapters, I can't relax and read a book now without adverbs popping out of the page. I'm wondering how these published writers got away with using so many of them. Hmmm...

I agree, though, there's nothing wrong with adverbs if used correctly and sparingly. Wait - I just used two adverbs in one sentence. *gasp*

Mary Campbell said...

Good post - I appreciate what BJ had to say as well. An adverb here and there is fine and can be useful. I do agree with dialog tags - they reek of amateur writing when I see it now.

Harley D. Palmer said...

I love that you mentioned writing adverbs in a first draft just to get past the sentence. I do that quite a bit but what I do is change the font color of the word. When I go back to edit, I can easily tell how close together or how often I used adverbs. Then I try to weed some of them out to make for a strong story. (I do a similar step with passive verbs too)

Jay said...

Thanks, Mary. I think I'll do a post all about dialog tags. :-)

Harley - Coming up with a rock solid replacement for an adverb often takes me some time, totally killing that first draft flow. So, yeah, I'm all for procrastinating.

Annie - Isn't it awful? You need to check your "writer" at the front page sometimes when reading.

Anonymous said...

I know, I know. Adverbs are bad. But, hey! Sometimes I want to know how something is done. He said, she said, blah blah blah. How did she say it???
I like adverbs, I admit it freely openly unashamedly forcefully and honestly. LOL.