21. Breaking the rules – in defence of adverbs

People talk about rules of good writing. I’ve used the term myself. But really, there are no rules, just tips. See? I broke a rule there – I started a sentence with a conjunction, ‘but’. Did it bother you? It avoided the comma and the run-on sentence if I’d made it a clause. You can break the rules if it makes sense. Following the rules blindly just leads to weak writing. Follow the tips when they make sense.

The so-called rules are there for a good reason – they distil a lot of experience. The show-don’t-tell rule, for example, is a pretty good tip. Writing is a collaboration between the author and the reader. Constant telling, constant narration, distances the reader. Showing involves the reader in deciding for herself what is going on.

If I write ‘Peter was old and sickly’ I’m telling you how to see Peter.
If I write ‘Peter shuffled towards me, supported by a stick. The effort of every step was etched in pain on his furrowed face’ I’ve invited you to picture Peter and draw your own conclusions.

Does that mean a writer must always show rather than tell? No, of course not. If the detail is unimportant to the story, tell it. If Jane walks down the stairs, it’s much better to say this, rather than tiring the reader with a long description of the stairs and the walking. Use the show-don’t-tell tip when there’s a good reason to do so.

Closely related to show-don’t-tell is the adverb rule. All writing manuals tell you to use adverbs sparingly. Stephen King goes further and would have us eliminate all adverbs. He argues that adverbs make for sloppy writing, signs the author is fearful that she isn’t getting her point across clearly.

I, like many amateurs, am guilty of breaking the adverb rule. Of 1,000 words in the story I described in the last post, 18 were adverbs. After editing, I reduced this to 14, but that’s still 14 that Stephen King would say shouldn’t be there. Maybe he’s right. He’s a successful author and I’m not.

Let’s look at this though. Why this particular hatred for one part of speech? In case you forgot your school grammar lessons, adverbs are words that modify verbs, and usually end in –ly (though not all do – ‘up’, for example is also an adverb). We don’t have the same rules about nouns, or verbs, or adjectives. Is this just textism? What’s the reason?

Reason one. It makes sense to eliminate adverbs when they’re making the writing weaker. Sometimes they just cover up failure to find better words. For example ‘he spoke quietly’ is unnecessary – it would be stronger to say ‘he whispered’ or ‘he murmured’. Many times, we can eliminate adverbs by using a stronger verb. In this sense, adverbs can be good pointers at the editing stage to where we need to polish the writing.

Reason two. When the adverb is doing no work at all, purge it. For example, in the phrase ‘he shouted loudly’ the adverb loudly is doing nothing – a shout is loud. Or, to take another example, ‘he said interestingly’. If what he says is interesting, maybe that he’s discovered the secret of time travel, then the reader doesn’t need the adverb, and if it’s dull, maybe that he’s tired, the adverb doesn’t change the dullness. Though, even there, if the character to whom he’s speaking has good reason to be interested, the adverb may still justify its place.

Reason three. Adverbs may distance the reader by telling, rather than showing. They can narrate details the reader should be filling in for themselves. For example ‘she looked suspiciously at the box’ could be better written ‘she examined the box, checking for booby traps.’

There may be other good reasons for eliminated adverbs. I couldn’t think of them while writing this. The point is that if there’s a reason not to use an adverb, don’t use it. By the same token, if there is a reason to use an adverb, then use it. Adverbs are pretty much like adjectives. Adverbs can add description to verbs, bringing a picture to life, in the same way as adjectives can bring nouns to life.

For example, take this phrase from the story I’ve just edited, ‘trees perched crazily like sure goats on precipitous falls.’ I spent some time considering whether to remove or change the ‘crazily.’ It’s doing some pretty important descriptive work, showing the random arrangement of the vegetation. It can’t be turned into the adjective ‘crazy’ since neither the trees nor the goats are crazy. The only thing that’s crazy is the perching. So, I retained the adverb. I think I had good reason to do so.

Technically, I suppose you could argue that the ‘crazy’ and the ‘sure’ contradict each other and one of them should go. I would disagree – crazy paving isn’t less secure as paving for being crazy. You might also argue that the description is overdone, with two adjectives and one adverb in the phrase. Overusing descriptive words in the belief this makes the writing more literary is a classic error of amateurs. You might be right, but there are some good reasons in the context to be highly descriptive.

So, here’s my conclusion. We give adverbs too hard a time. It’s a good tip to think long and hard about why an adverb is there, and what work it’s doing. But, should we eliminate every adverb? No. As with every other part of our writing, we should make it as crisp and effective as we can. I’m all for better verbs, adjectives, gerunds and nouns, as well as better adverbs. The prejudice against adverbs is simply textism.

There is a big however to the defence of adverbs. Agents, editors and publishers often believe in the ‘no adverbs’ tip as an iron-clad rule. If you submit a work full of adverbs, however well-chosen and hard-working, they may just put a red pencil through it and decide you’re an amateur. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

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3 thoughts on “21. Breaking the rules – in defence of adverbs

  1. when I studied high school art history, there was a term used to describe art that reflected the artist’s brushstrokes in the medium – “painterly”. Rather than realism, it was a celebration of the artist’s presence in their art. Used well, adverbs are often “writerly” in that they can be used by wordsmiths to create lyrical, breathtaking prose in which the reader is fully aware of the writer as a presence in the story. The fashion of the day is to craft stories that make the reader feel as though they are watching TV; the writer is hidden away as if they don’t exist. This certainly has its place, but when I read, I crave the writerly, and when I find it, I am thrilled.

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  2. There is a succulence to vocabulary such that, just sometimes, only an adverb hits the spot – so long as there isn’t a more powerful verb that would do the job better. I’m intrigued by your pleasure in seeing the writer at work, which, as you say, is distinctly not the fashion today

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