7 Writing Rules: #4 Take Out All the Adverbs

Many writers see adverbs as little pests, not unlike greedy ants on your countertop, begging only to be squashed and murdered. They are viewed as mutant dandelions whose mere presence means that your story is heavy with monstrosities, thereby making you a lesser writer and your work next to trash. Not true.

A good example of an adverb and the most frequent offender is a modifier ending in -ly telling us how someone is feeling or saying something. An example is something like the following: “I can’t be sure who murdered her,” the butler said evasively, his eyes shifting to the side.

Something better would be to cut out the “evasively” and just letting it be this: “I can’t be sure who murdered her,” the butler said, his eyes shifting to the side.

You know he’s being shifty — it’s in the sentence itself — but you aren’t sure what’s happening. It’s more subtle and your readers will get that the butler isn’t telling us everything. He may not be sure, but he knows something, the secretive bastard.

These aren’t the best examples — far from it. I pretty much pulled them out of my buttocks as I was writing this, but you get the idea.

What is true is that an over reliance on adverbs suggests weak characters whose actions, words, and motivations are ambiguous enough that readers won’t know how they are feeling. This touches another issue: that an abundance of adverbs points to a lack of confidence in your writing. Others think that it’s just lazy.

Adverbs serve a purpose. It’s the overuse of them that gets you in trouble. Stephen King, who preaches against them vehemently, admits that he will use occasional adverbs. He does. I’ve noticed. In a review of Order of the Phoenix, he calls out J.K. Rowling in an otherwise glowing review for using them, citing that her writing is wonderful, her characters are clear, their intentions are well-stated, and that she doesn’t need to use so many adverbs. I have noticed it, but they don’t really bother me.

I can give you an example of where they DID bother me and I did notice and it was grating: the first Twilight book. I will be the first to admit that I listened to all four audio books and rarely enjoyed them. I wanted to be able to talk trash with authority and to see what the fuss was about; my attitude does not change the fact that the subject matter and writing were pedestrian at best. However, her adverbs were out of control. In something like 10 minutes of listening, I counted 17 adverbs. My favorite and the most reaching, terrible example was the someone “chivalrously” diving in front of a volleyball to save Bella in PE, but nothing compares to Meyer’s heavy reliance on the word “swiftly”. As I progressed through the books, Meyer’s writing got considerably better or her editor was competent, because the adverbs were bad, but nothing like they were int hat first book.

As with anything, the key is moderation. Use adverbs as needed, but trust yourself and trust your readers. They will get it, and you probably don’t need to bedazzle your story with unnecessary literary rhinestones.

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~ by Darren Endymion on January 23, 2017.

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