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What’s the Adverbsion?

When to use adverbs in creative writing

Writers write. And have opinions on writing. And wax lyrical about the dos and don’ts on what constitutes great writing. We’ve all heard the saying ‘Show, don’t tell’, one of the most overused phrases in literature. A close second is ‘Never use adverbs’. Don’t get me started on ‘Write what you know.’ But is this advice correct?

An adverb is a word that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, other adverb or whole sentence, and generally end -ly. Together with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections, adverbs form the traditional parts of speech. All word classes have their time and place, necessary to construct the English language. So, what’s the problem?

If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I’d have it shot. Immediately.” –  Elmore Leonard.

1. An adverb is used to support a weak verb.

Fred walked slowly down the street. Fred could amble, stroll, saunter, wander, mosey, meander or traipse down the street, all of which are better. By choosing a stronger verb, the sentence is punchier, more direct, while disseminating the same information.

To quote William Zinsser, “Good writing gets to the point; it does not use two words when one will suffice.”

2. Strong verbs are weakened by a redundant adverb.

George heavily slammed the cup on the table. Is there any other way to slam something? In this case, there’s no need to choose a different verb, just lose the adverb. In fact, lose all redundancies. Don’t revert back, kneel down, protrude out, whisper quietly or creep silently.

3. The clichéd adverb.

He whispered lovingly, she punched the wall angrily, they giggled conspiratorially. Aside from redundancies and the fact that a description of the group would convey their demeanour more effectively, they are dreadful clichés. Of course, people will snuggle, get angry and gossip, but there are better ways to communicate that. Just because you’ve heard a phrase a million times, it doesn’t mean it’s a good one. If a single tear is rolling down your cheek right now, get editing.

4. Adverbs in dialogue tags.

Well, isn’t that fanflippingtastic,’ he said, sarcastically. The ‘flipping’ in the middle of the word makes this an obvious one, but you get my point. It’s a rare day I use anything other than said, replied or asked. Dialogue tags are there to tell you who is speaking, and most reader’s eyes slide right over them. The movements, the body language and word choices of your character should convey their tone, especially as the story progresses. If the reader doesn’t recognise your character’s traits, something else is wrong.

5. Too many adverbs = overwriting.

Overwriting draws attention away from the story and stops it being real. Good writing has verisimilitude – it jumps out of the page and into the imagination.

Catherine jogged nonchalantly along the parched, dusty track, smiling happily and singing merrily. Too much! TOO MUCH! If you’ve recovered from the barrage of words, think about what is being conveyed to the reader. Now make it better. If you like, add your improvements in the comments section – I’ll pick the best one and post it on Twitter.

I could say the adverbs have taken a right good slaying and we can call it a day. Except, I’m not going to. Here comes my full-throated, resoundingly positive defence of the mighty adverb.

The miracle is in the adverbs, the way things are done.” – Daniel Handler.

I can’t remember where now, but I once read ‘adverbs destroy creativity’. Bullshit. The trick is knowing where to use them. Appropriately, beautifully, creatively.

1. Context.

Adam nearly dropped his ceramic pitcher. There’s a big difference between dropping something and nearly dropping it – just ask Humpty Dumpty. The adverb clarifies and adds emphasis, there’s no way round it.

2. Fixing clumsy phrases.

George danced in a flagrant fashion. It makes sense and avoids an adverb. It’s also cumbersome. The simplification, George danced flagrantly, is refined. Of course, you could spend a while describing George’s movements, detailing arms and legs flying in all directions, hips gyrating, but only if it really matters. Perhaps using one teensy adverb is okay.

3. Nothing else is good enough.

Sometimes, you just need that adverb. End of.

These are the obvious, if somewhat fatuous, reasons to use one. To fully understand the power of the adverb, we need to dig deeper.

I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” – Henry James

The way we read and write have changed since Henry James’ day. Smart phones, tablets and laptops mean we’re connected to the world 24/7, used to getting our information in bitesize pieces, trimmed and packaged for a 30 second scan. Who has time for more than that? I do, and so do readers everywhere. Yes, adverbs can halt flow, but it’s not always a bad thing.

When I construct a sentence, I think about the rhythm, I read it out loud. Does it rise and fall the way I envisioned? Am I conveying the tone and atmosphere? A correctly used adverb is a technique all in itself.

Here’s a scene: a young boy has been bullied at school and today is his first day back. Terrified of returning, he’s holding onto the doorjamb and refusing to let go. Does his mother prise his fingers off the frame? Or does she tenderly loosen each digit?

I want my reader to take a beat, to stretch the moment; a little window in time to appreciate the mother’s ache for doing what a mother must.

Not all words hold the same value and it’s wrong to assume they do. I don’t want everything to be immediate, transparent or complication free. I’m not simply absorbing information; I’m engrossing myself in a story, falling in love with characters, experiencing their world. If they need to stop to untangle a thought, I should too.

Oftentimes, replacing an adverb with a stronger verb is the right call, for all the reasons I said before. When is it the wrong decision? The modification of a bold verb works when that addition adds complexity and contradiction.

Let’s return to our earlier example: Fred walked slowly down the street. Fred traipsed down the street. Fred traipsed menacingly down the street. I’ll grant you it’s not Nobel Prize winning literature, but can’t you see the threat?

Anna was one of the most forgettably cruel people I’ve ever met. John’s manner was attractively crazy. Read those sentences without the adverbs … have I persuaded you yet? Don’t you just love those marvellous contradictions?

Adverbs reveal nuances in the words they modify, so who’s supporting who? Without the adverb, our verb is too bold, too in your face. Our adjective is obvious and gross. That displacement offered by the adverb might just be the harmony to your melody. Writing isn’t a science and it shouldn’t be treated as one. Guidelines are fine but absolute rules crush fledgling authors, making them scared to experiment. Stephen King is often quoted regarding his thoughts on adverbs: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” Here’s something else he said, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” You know what? He’s right. Scare students enough and they’ll produce exactly what you taught them – flat, dull reproductions in painful uniformity.

For the most part, the aforementioned refers to narrative. What about dialogue, I hear you cry? Although dialogue should mimic natural speech, it won’t have quite the same pattern as a real-life conversation, but it shouldn’t read exactly like prose either. In short, you’ll use adverbs more often.

JD Salinger used them a lot for Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye: “He was a phoney, he really was.” I’m not a fan of the book – I found Holden Caulfield irritating as Hell – but his style of speech reveals a lot about his character. Without the qualifying statements we don’t get the same sense of who he is. The danger is that you get to the point where you annoy your reader, but don’t shy away if it’s key. Ask instead, is it natural? Are you adding voice/substance to a character? If your answer is yes, you go right ahead and adverb.

Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.” – William Zinsser

I think we can agree adverbs have their function – there’s a time and a place for them, one that isn’t never and nowhere. But how often is too often? Outside of dialogue, I try to operate a ratio of ~250:1. In a normal published book, it works out at roughly one or two per page. As with any other writing technique, don’t hold yourself to it too strictly and remember that trying to follow every rule takes all the style from your work. Your manuscript might be grammatically perfect, adverb-free, whittled down to a toothpick of your first draft, and still be as flat as a pancake. Writing to a formula results in the same shit everyone else churns out. The rules are absolute … until someone gets away with breaking them.

And break them, they do. In fact, many of the most vocal authors can’t even stick to their own. If you haven’t read Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: The Literary Quirks and Oddities of Our Most-Loved Authors by Ben Blatt, I’d highly recommend you do. It’s both an interesting and funny look at well-known authors, their books and what the numbers say about them.

Ernest Hemingway, famous for his minimalist style, averaged adverbs at roughly 1:200, and J.K. Rowling averages a whopping 1:74. Mind you, it hasn’t hurt her career. Elmore Leonard not only hated adverbs but was a severe detractor on the use of exclamation marks. He was adamant only three be allowed per 100k words. Guess what? 49 per 100k!

So, what’s the conclusion? I say it’s this: the abolishment of adverbs is neither valuable nor necessary. They bring nuance to the conspicuous and add layers to the veneer of a simple sentence, as long as it’s done fittingly, sparingly and elegantly. If I might subvert the good William Zinsser, don’t use one word when two will supersede.

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