Sunday, July 31, 2011

Adverbs, Those Needless Little Buggers

There are many constants when you're a writer. Some days you will hate everything you write. Others, you'll think what you've penned is a lyrical masterpiece and you will question why other mere mortals dare write while you are. You will discover the necessary evil and illuminating worth of editing. You will face rejection. And, if you work-really work-at it, you'll improve, grow and ultimately thrive as a writer. These are constants. These are the inevitable little truths that you will encounter at one time or another over the span of your writing career.

You will also, I promise, hear many, many nuggets of advice on writing, on character development, pacing, query letter writing and all those dirty little publishing secrets. Those simply aren't avoidable.

What, I think, is one of the most important bits of advice you'll hear is how to structure your narrative so that you avoid any and all instances of The Clunk. Do you know where those come from, folks? Well, adverbs, of course.

Why are they bad?
Well, to the unskilled, they seem like an easy fix, the clearest and easiest path to lazy writing. These little monsters modify verbs and aren't, on their own, so bad. It's when they enable The Clunk, that you have to watch out.

Charlie Jane Anders, with explains it far more intelligently than I can with this article. Essentially, Anders echoes my long-held belief in why adverb usage is bad.


  • Cause redundancy- She crept stealthily. He yelled angrily. They ran quickly. As David Byrne says, "Say something once. Why say it again?"
  • SPEECH TAGS - This is a biggie and a personal pet peeve of mine. When your character is angry/upset/frightened, the worst thing you can do is TELL the reader what they're feeling. "I don't want to die!" needn't be followed by she said hysterically. If we know that the character is scared of death or is in a situation where death is imminent, the emotion is implied. This type of writing reeks of 'telling not showing' and is consistent with lazy, novice writing.
  • They weaken your verbs or point out when you have a bad one - First, let me explain weak and strong verbs.

Strong verbs = Irregular verbs (generally) that aren't aided by other tense endings (ed, d, t). They demonstrate action. Example: give, gave.

Weak verbs = Regular verbs that cannot form the past tense without the aid of compound endings (ed, d, t). They 'insinuate' action. Example: call, called.

So when you have a weak verb, your sentence structure is passive and the difference is obvious: Weak: She cringed at the horribleness of her long day. Strong: She had a bad day.

A better understanding of why adverbs should be avoided comes from Renni Browne and Dave King’s take on the evils of those ly monsters in Self Editing For Fiction Writers: “Ly adverbs almost always catch the author in the act of explaining dialogue – smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself. If your dialogue doesn’t need props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even though it isn’t.”

Still not convinced? I’ll give you an example from Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages (which includes both poor adverb and adjective usage):

In the bright, shiny sky there appeared two large, massive birds, circling slowly around the young, scared rabbit. It ran quickly, jumping bravely over small, sharp, rocks and trying to make is way desperately to its little hole. The birds dived ferociously and with long, sharp nails grabbed the baby rabbit’s short, white hair and swept him up pridefully into the large, open sky. There flew victoriously back home their wide, black slick wings reflecting the hot, afternoon sun.

And with corrections:

In the bright, shiny sky there appeared two large, massive (large/massive both describe the size of the birds. i.e, redundant) birds, circling slowly (circling implies slow) around the young, scared rabbit.(how do we know the rabbit is young or scared? Because the writer tells us so? No! Bad writing, there. What indicates that the rabbit is young? How does he look? Is he trembling?) It ran quickly, (run generally indicates moving fast) jumping bravely (Lukeman says this is an example of the writer not giving enough credit. Let the reader’s imagination work here, don’t do it for him) over small, sharp) (more redundancy here) rocks and trying to make is way desperately (the rabbit is running, trying to escape predators…of course he’s desperate. ) to its little hole. The birds dived ferociously (is there any other way for a predator to dive? cut) and with long, sharp nails grabbed the baby rabbit’s short, (this would have been better served above, when the writer was describing the age of the rabbit) white hair and swept him up pridefully (technically, that’s not even a word) into the large, (we know the sky is large and open, for that matter but I’ll leave that one in) open sky. They flew victoriously (how does won ‘fly victoriously?) back home with their wide, black slick (pick ONE description here and get rid of The Clunck) wings reflecting the hot, (bright, above, indicated this already) afternoon sun.

Okay, so this is what we have now:

In the bright sky there appeared two large birds, circling around the young rabbit. It ran, jumping over small rocks and tried to make its way to its little hole. The birds dived and with sharp nails, grabbed the baby rabbit’s white hair and swept him up into the open sky. They flew back home with their slick wings reflecting the afternoon sun.

Still not perfect, (the gerund use is ridiculous), but you get the point. The Clunk has disappeared along with the redundant and poorly used adverbs.

Happy writing!


Brian H said...

"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

He said knowingly...


TS Tate said...

LOL nice. Thanks, B

Les Edgerton said...

I suspect that the advice to eschew adverbs comes from John Gardner’s statement where he said: “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” The problem is, many writers only read part of his statement—that adverbs are the “dullest tools,” neglecting the other part that says they can be the “sharpest tools.”

And, they can be. Adverbs aren’t the problem. The improper use of adverbs is the problem. If the writer takes some time and uses them in an original way, they’ll elevate the writing. The same advice is often promoted for adjectives. Again, adjectives used creatively are among the strongest tools in the writer’s toolbox.

Witness these examples:

“She had been to Germany, Italy, everywhere that one visits acquisitvely.” Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

“She jammed the pedal to the floor, and like something huge and pre-historic and pea-brained, the Jeep leapt stupidly out of its stall.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“So closely had we become tied to the river that we could sense where it lay and make for it instinctively like cattle.” W.D. Wetherell, Chekhov’s Sister

“When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter.” Toni Morrison, Sula

“With a bladdery whack it (the boat) slapped apart and sprang away.” Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

“Hank was not accepted at Harvard Law School; but goodhearted Yale took him.” John Updike, “The Other”

“On the far side of the room, under the moiling dogs the twins are playing.” Francois Camoin, “Baby, Baby, Baby”

(From Hooked)

Your points are well-taken and valuable, but there is a time when adverbs and adjectives can be used more effectively than any other part of speech. The danger is in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, to use a cliché, I, for one, never get tired of hearing…

I also know that you qualified everything by saying “poorly-used adverbs,” but sometimes people forget that qualifier just as many forget the other part of Gardner’s adage.

Blue skies,

TS Tate said...

Les, I do agree with you. Adverbs can be used, by the skilled writer. The point of the post, however, was to demonstrate how they can be misused. Generally, that happens with novice writers. Valid point you made. Thank you.

Greig said...

Is “fly” an adverb? It ends in -ly. Right?