Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Guns and Adverbs: Part 2

What is the big deal with adverbs, anyway? I mean, they teach kids in elementary school to use adverbs liberally, to spice up their writing. If they teach kids they should be using adverbs, why do we, as writers, take the stance of "No Adverbs!"?

In a lot of ways, using adverbs can be like taking a shotgun and shooting your manuscript with it at point-blank range. And that's why everyone goes around saying, "Don't use adverbs!"

Everyone would be wrong.

There's nothing actually wrong with the adverb. If you learn how to use them effectively.

However, I'll give you the top three ways people like to use adverbs, and, maybe, you can see why there is the temptation to banish them:

1. in dialogue tags
The problem with using adverbs in dialogue tags is that they frequently become a way to tell the audience what is happening rather than to show the audience. For instance, you might use, "he said quietly," when "whispered" would be better. Or you might say, "he leaned close and said into my ear," which would be even better. Or you might say, "she said excitedly," which is just telling me that she was excited, but "she squealed and jumped up and down before saying" shows me that she is excited, which is far more, well, exciting. Basically, adding those adverbs to dialogue tags can be a lazy way of getting around showing what's going on.
And, of course, using descriptive dialogue tags distracts from the actual dialogue, which you don't want to do. The dialogue tag should fade into the background as much as possible, which is why we don't want to draw attention to them by tacking adverbs on. There are few "rules" of writing I believe should be followed unilaterally, but the one about keeping dialogue tags to a simple "said" is probably the one I believe in most. Heck, I think if I could get away with not using them, I would (which is kind of odd considering how much I dislike Hemingway for that very reason).

2. to create redundancies
Unfortunately, the other way we want to use adverbs is to reinforce verbs that don't need reinforcing. In effect, we make a redundant word combination. We like to say things like "he ran quickly" or "she screamed loudly" or "he whispered quietly." We don't need adverbs in any of those circumstances. If he's running, we know that he's doing it quickly, and, if she's screaming, we assume it's loud. In most cases, there are better verbs to replace those combinations anyway, like "he sprinted" or "she shrieked" or "he murmured."

3. really and very
Yeah, people really, really like to use these adverbs very, very much. Frequently, these cause writing to become boring due to word repetition, and, as with any word, you don't want to use them too much. Usually, there are better words.

With all of this going against the adverb, it can be difficult to see legitimate uses for them. It's rather like taking out a sub-machine gun to hunt a deer. The only good reason for that is if you want to save some time in making venison burgers. The trick is knowing when to use the adverb gun and which adverb gun works best.

Personally, I like the adverb as an adverbial phrase. See what I did there? "Personally" is an adverb. In point 3, so are "frequently" and "usually." In point 2, I have "unfortunately." Adverbs in those positions are useful and give a clearer meaning to the sentences. And that's the catch, when we're going to use adverbs, they should provide a clearer meaning; they should provide more focus. Not the same focus. You don't want them to just re-say what you're already saying.

Another good use of the adverb, which provides a greater meaning to the sentence but is not as an adverbial phrase, is to contrast the word you're modifying. Going back to the examples I used earlier, you could have "he ran haltingly," which provides a completely new dynamic to that sentence. You could also say "she screamed hoarsely" or "he whispered loudly." Those adverbs are useful and good and provide new depth to what is being said.

All of this to say that, although I understand the temptation to tell people "don't use adverbs," it's a better solution for people to learn how to use them effectively. There's no real reason to deprive authors of the adverb tool just because some people use them incorrectly. It's not the same as when I was a kid and was given a tool kit one year and proceeded to use the hand drill
something like this
to woodpecker the furniture. Needless to say, it got taken away. However, it would have been better if my parents had taken the time to teach me what to use it on.


  1. Stronger focus rather than same focus - that's a good rule for adverbs.
    I still use them, although hopefully I'm getting better.

  2. I love adverbs. I hate having to reduce them in my writing, but thus is the life of a writer. Still, I agree that they have a time and a place on occasion.

  3. I have a problem with using far to many adverbs in my writing. I read Stephen King's book on writing and he is ADAMANT about not using adverbs. After reading that section of the book I almost gave up even trying to write. I think there is a time and place for adverbs just like the examples you gave above. I also think that using more of them when writing for young adults is better because it reflects how they speak and think.

  4. Good post, and I think this is one of those things that fall into the "habit" category, idk. I know I probably need an intervention on the subject; possibly rehab-just kidding. :)

  5. Alex: It's probably a good rule for everything, but adverbs tend to lend toward redundancies more than other words, so I think it's probably especially important for them.

    S.L.: Yeah, it's just one of those things. At least, you don't have to excise them all.

    Jennifer: See, that's just another reason that I don't think King is really all that. He believes that there's only one way to write: his way, and I just don't believe that.

    G_G: Adverb rehab... hmm... that has potential.

  6. Cutting all adverbs from a work would be like cutting all butter, or all chocolate, or all wine from one's diet. (What a horrible thought!) Just as those things enhance our culinary pleasures, I think adverbs used in moderation spice up a piece of writing.

  7. Susan: Yeah, that's why I think it's so silly when I see other authors writing posts about "no adverbs." How about no pinkies? Or no big toes? No eyebrows?

  8. Great post, Andrew. I use adverbs but try to avoid them in the instances you've described here. I love your drill story at the end - hilarious! :-)

  9. Cally: Yeah, it's a good story -now-, but I got tired of hearing about it when I was a kid. Like, for years. Give a 6-y-o a drill, what do you expect? Seriously.

  10. Can I say, "Very pregnant?" I love saying that.

  11. Enjoyed the grammar lesson. I mostly write "by feel," and not according to useful rules, which is fine for a draft but which is an idiosyncratic and too comfortable rut for me to fall into, and won't endear me to intelligent readers who really know their language. Good thing my wife is an excellent editor.

  12. Adverbs are like alcohol. Great in in small doses, destructive in large doses.

  13. Michael: Well, I'd say yes, but, then, I like that phrase, too.

    neal: Writing by feel is fine. I do that, too, to an extent. I also get sentence focused which can make me use the same words (especially "though") too often, so I have to go back and weed out.

    Martin: That's a good analogy! Wish I'd thought of it.

  14. I don't hate the adverb, but I always do a "find and replace" for "ly" in my manuscript when I'm done writing. I weigh each adverb I've used to see if it really is the best word or phrase. I maybe end up chucking half of them out. I tend to really overuse the word really. :)

  15. L.G.: "Really" is really very easy to overuse. You have to really pay attention to it or you'll really use it a lot.

  16. Excellent explanation that has clarified adverb use for me. I've been trying to avoid use in dialog tags, but I do like an appropriately used adverb. I don't know if you recall the old "Tom Swifties" game that used to be popular many years ago where you'd try to think of witty adverbed dialog tags (like "I hate hypodermic needles," Tom said pointedly.) That's what I always think of when I'm writing dialog and try to avoid using adverbs in those cases.

    I am going to try to be more aware in the future. I'm also going to try to be more careful with "very" and "really". I use both of those a lot in my blog posts and comments.

    Wrote By Rote

  17. Lee: I love Swifties in a general sense, but it has to be a certain type of writing to support those. Unfortunately, I don't write in that kind of style.

    I don't think about my blog posts in the same way I do as my writing for publication. I try to keep the blog posts pseudo conversational, so I am much more likely to use words like "really" a lot more than I would in my other writing. And, really, I think that's okay (or I wouldn't do it).