A few months ago, I wrote about the dangers of applying blanket “rules” to your writing, and I promised that I would write some posts about some of these rules that writers should really take with a fairly big pinch of salt. But then I got distracted by life and the terribly exciting SfEP conference, so I didn’t. But now, finally, here’s the first one in my “Pinches of Salt” series. Hurrah!
Let’s start with a piece of advice that you’re bound to hear if you hang around in a Facebook writing group for longer than about ten minutes: Avoid adverbs.
Adverbs are the devil, apparently. You must go through your manuscript and look for any word ending in -ly and kill it with fire, and if you don’t, Stephen King will find you and smite you.
There are two main problems with this advice. The first is that half the people giving it don’t seem to actually understand what an adverb is, and the second is that too many people don’t understand why they should want to get rid of them, they just know that the aforementioned Stephen King says so in On Writing, so therefore it must be true.
The first problem largely comes about when people decide that an adverb is any word ending with -ly. That’s not true. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb. They can also modify things like adjectives, other adverbs, or whole sentences. Many of them are, indeed, an adjective with -ly on the end, such as loudly, quickly, squashily. But, obviously, not all -ly words are adverbs. Family isn’t an adverb. Lonely isn’t an adverb. Leisurely is sometimes an adverb, but it can be an adjective as well. And some adverbs don’t end in -ly. Again is an adverb. Down is often an adverb. Flat adverbs such as “tight” or “close” are identical to their adjectival forms. So already, we can see that just searching for -ly words is not the same thing as hunting out adverbs.
To examine the second problem, let’s look at the first of the four questions I introduced in my first writing advice post: what problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? There are three problems that adverbs can cause.
One is redundancy. Adverbs are sometimes used to say things like “She shouted loudly”. Adverbs are supposed to modify – that is, change or give more information – about how the action is being performed. Here, we just don’t need the adverb – nobody shouts quietly (I mean, I try, when my kids won’t put their shoes on and my husband is trying to sleep after a night shift, but it doesn’t actually work). So here, we can jettison the adverb, and the sentence still means exactly the same as it did before, and everyone’s happy.
Another problem is that adverbs are “telling” as opposed to “showing”. Show vs. tell deserves its own post and it will definitely get one, but for now let’s assume that “telling” is as grave a sin as tweeting who got kicked off the Great British Bake Off the minute it’s finished before some people have managed to watch it on catch-up (What? I’m not bitter AT ALL). In a sentence like “‘Get out,’ he said angrily”, the reader is being told the state of mind of the speaker, rather than being allowed to infer it for themselves by the behaviour being shown. The argument here is that you should get rid of the word angrily, and instead give the reader a clue to his anger in another way, for example “‘Get out,’ he said, curling his shaking hands into tight fists.”
The third alleged problem is that adverbs are lazy, flat writing, and encourage writers to use weak verbs instead of stronger, more interesting ones. Why say “he moved quickly” when the English language allows him to dart, spring, sprint, scurry, scramble, rush? All these verbs are far more descriptive and evocative then the original verb and adverb.
So those are the reasons you might want to get rid of adverbs. And they’re good reasons, right? So why am I advising such caution?
Part of it is, as I’ve mentioned, that a lot of the people taking and giving the “avoid adverbs” advice don’t seem to actually understand the things I’ve mentioned before. They’re following the rules blindly, and that rarely leads to stronger writing. And even if you generally understand the reasons, it’s important to look at our other questions to identify if those reasons really do apply in each individual instance.
Let’s look at some examples and ask those questions:
“She tiptoed quietly across the floor.”
- What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? Redundancy
- Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? Yup – tiptoeing is pretty much always quiet.
- What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? It would say the same thing in fewer words
- Is that the effect I want? Yes, why wouldn’t you?
- Result – throw “quietly” in the bin.
“‘I didn’t mean it,’ she said quietly.”
- What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? Well, it’s not redundancy, because it’s definitely modifying the verb, so for now, let’s say this falls under “telling not showing”.
- Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? I suppose so – we are telling the reader exactly how to interpret her voice.
- What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? Well, if we take it out, we’ve just got “‘I didn’t mean it’, she said”, and we’ve definitely lost some information there, and perhaps that’s information the reader needs.
- Is that the effect I want? Well, that’s up to you. Does the reader, in fact, need this information? What’s the context? If this comes in the middle of a shouting, screaming argument, then although the adverb is telling the reader exactly how to interpret that line, it’s also hinting at something more – whatever came immediately before has caused some kind of change in her that’s caused her to lower her voice. The dynamic of the scene has shifted, and we’ve done that with one little adverb.
There are, of course, other ways to achieve that shift, such as with some kind of action, gesture or internal dialogue, and some would argue that you should definitely use one of those options. But those options are almost guaranteed to be wordier, and that might not be what you need at this moment in time.
- Result – your adverb could be working pretty hard here. Seems a shame to punish it just because it’s an adverb.
“‘I didn’t mean it,’ she said quietly.”
- What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? OK, so maybe it’s neither redundant or too tell-y, but surely this is one of these “weak verb” moments?
- Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? “Said” isn’t the most interesting verb, after all.
- What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? We’d need to find another verb for “said quietly”. And let me tell you something – there isn’t one. No, really. Trust me. “Whispered” is not quite the same thing. “Murmured” is not quite the same thing. “Hushing” dialogue is not a thing at all.
- Is that the effect I want? Well, presumably you don’t want to change the meaning of the sentence and the feel of the scene by using a verb that describes a different tone of voice. And presumably you don’t want to drive your poor editor mad by shoehorning in a verb that doesn’t quite mean what you’d like it to mean just so it means you don’t have to use an adverb…
- Result – Keep the damn adverb.
But… but… but! I hear you cry. Perhaps we could still get rid of that “quietly” and not use an adverb. We could be crafty. We could have her say the line “in a quiet voice.” Genius, right? No. What we’ve done there is got rid of our adverb, but replaced it with an adverbial, which is a phrase that modifies a verb, as opposed to a word. We’ve not changed the meaning in the slightest, which means none of the things discussed above have changed one tiny bit, but we’ve used more words.
So let’s summarize: Adverbs, which are not just “words that end in -ly”, are not your enemy. You should try and avoid redundancy. You should think about your verb choices. Where you can, you should trust your reader to infer exactly how a line or action should be perceived, and make sure you’re giving them enough clues to do that. You shouldn’t use verbs that distort what you’re trying to convey, or that don’t really exist, just to avoid an adverb. You shouldn’t tie yourself in a knot to avoid an adverb only to end up replacing it with an adverbial. And you should always, one more time for the people at the back, take all writing advice with a pinch of salt.