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What About Adverbs—A Reader’s Question

January 15, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 16, 2012

In a discussion about the semicolon, a reader of The Editor’s Blog asked about adverbs—what I thought about them and what advice could I offer a new writer when so much conflicting advice on adverb use abounds on the Internet and in chat rooms and even between colleagues.

Well . . . My first response is that adverbs are a legitimate part of speech and thus they can and should be used. If anyone advocates their ban, that person is encouraging writers to close off or ignore a valid means of expression.

That said, adverbs are not to be used in place of weak verbs or to make up for inexact phrasing.

Use an adverb when it’s needed to convey a particular meaning or when the passage (or even the story or genre itself) demands its use. If the tone of a passage, the personality of a character, or the style of the story calls for adverbs, do not hesitate to use them.

But use them sparingly.

Adverbs can be noticeable, especially those ending in -ly. Because they can be placed in different locations in a sentence, writers don’t always notice they’ve used them in a way that weakens their phrases and annoys the reader. That is, because they might not show up in the same place every time—such as at the beginning of a sentence—writers might not be bothered by them the way readers will. They may not even see them since they’re focused on plot and character and dialogue and emotion and conflict . . .

If you have a character who speaks adverbs, include them in that character’s dialogue. But omit them from the dialogue of other characters—unless they are mocking or copying his style.

Definitely restrict their use in dialogue tags. Yes, adverbs were once quite popular as modifiers for the verbs in dialogue tags. But they aren’t popular for that purpose today. Adverbs paired with creative dialogue tags can come across as melodramatic or as amateurish storytelling. As the work of an inexperienced author.

If you read a lot of the classics, balance that reading with the reading of modern novels so you can see what readers of today enjoy. And what they expect. Don’t base your style on writers from a century or more ago. Yes, you can enjoy them and learn from them, but readers don’t expect you to write like them any more than they expect you to write like Shakespeare.

It’s odd that the popular writers of the past used adverbs much more than we do today and were praised for it while modern writers are criticized when they do the same thing. But readers’ needs and expectations change and writers need to keep up. Or even lead those changes.

You have a style, so write according to your style. But never forget the readers. Do you want them finishing your book and coming back for more? Then give them what appeals to them.

Note: When someone advocates a ban on adverb usage, he’s quite likely talking about adverbs ending in -ly rather than all adverbs. Keep this in mind when you see such advice.

___________________________

Refresher

What are adverbs? They are modifiers. They modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and even whole sentences.

She dressed provocatively.

She dressed highly provocatively.

He was very passionate.

He sang passionately about his life.

They strode elegantly into the ballroom from somewhere in the back of the building.

The parents stood close to the dog, but their son stayed far away.

Coincidentally, he’d gone to the doctor just before he got the flu.

Her boss was suspiciously friendly. [friendly is an adjective]

Talia was rather peeved her boorish yet rarely absent boss was absent on her birthday.

“I’m rather peeved you missed my birthday party, Kevin,” Talia bitterly complained.

Luckily the rains finally arrived in Tombstone.

Many adverbs end in -ly, but not all of them do. And not all words that end in -ly are adverbs.

Adverbs easily abused by writers include

always

almost

down

fast

hopefully

just

now

often

only

over

really

suddenly

up

very

well

Because these adverbs are so common, they can dilute the impact of the words around them, lulling the reader or causing him to pass by a grouping of words.

If you want words to pop from a sentence, try eliminating the modifiers—both adverbs and adjectives—surrounding them. Instead of muddying up your writing with extra words, make it lean and powerful with precise nouns and explicit verbs.

___________________________

My advice, then, is to use adverbs when necessary. But know that you are using them and know why. And be prepared to remove them in order to strengthen your stories.

Be selective when using adverbs with dialogue tags. If I were to ever counsel against adverb use, dialogue tags is where I’d do it. Yet, five or six adverbs used in dialogue tags and sprinkled into a 90,000 word manuscript means those adverbs are going to pop out.

And that might be just what you want them to do.

So . . .

Don’t accept—or offer—a blanket prohibition on one of the parts of speech or a punctuation mark or any other writing tool. But do use each correctly and selectively.

Write well.

Edit with style and with an eye toward impact.

Edit wisely.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Craft & Style

6 Responses to “What About Adverbs—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Kai says:

    Thank you for this informative post. I have jotted down the adverbs you have listed in order to check how and when they appear in my WiP. I’m sure other writers who read The Editor’s Blog will do the same (or at least keep it in mind when writing/revising).

    I agree with your point about reading contemporary fiction to find a balance. I’ve personally just been re-reading The Crucible (although it is a play), and a novel that was released less than four months ago by an author from my home town. It goes without saying how different they are, and how they are read.

  2. Kai, most writers have their favorite words, so checking is always a good idea. I’ve got to add only to this list, because that one gets used a lot too.

    Glad the article was useful.

  3. Angel King says:

    Yikes! Thank you for this article. I have read so much historical fiction and classics that I really struggle with this.

  4. Angel, I’m guessing that the older style sounds quite natural to you and the lack of adverbs in modern fiction sounds and looks odd. Do what works for your story and your writing style but don’t forget the modern reader’s sensibilities. I know, not nearly as simple as it sounds.

    Thanks for letting us know you were here.

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  2. [...] “Definitely restrict their use in dialogue tags. Yes, adverbs were once quite popular as modifiers for the verbs in dialogue tags. But they aren’t popular for that purpose today. Adverbs paired with creative dialogue tags can come across as melodramatic or as amateurish storytelling. As the work of an inexperienced author.” (http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/01/15/what-about-adverbs-a-readers-question/) [...]