Prompt – Are adverbs really the devil? If they sneak in occasionally, does it mean the writer is lazy?
I went on a rant a couple of years ago about -ly adverbs. Particularly adverbs where they didn’t belong. It was part of the whole franchise author, ‘who’s writing this crap anyway’ rant. Here’s what sparked it.
“The rain was washing the blood pinkly away.” – Robert B Parker, School Days
Oh. My. God. Really? Try pinkly in a Scrabble game and see how far you get.
Awkward adverbs – I finished Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl. Classic Hiaasen. I think there were three or four adverb dialog tags in 90k. They were so rare the few used stuck out like a cowbell in Kenny G. I wondered, why not forego them altogether? Don’t argue with the star? Lazy editor?
Adverb laden – I always use the same two or three examples, and the first is a classic example of maybe, at times, it’s okay. It’s certainly easier. That example is the opening of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. (Link) If we’d had to get the backstory on all those girls and their attitudes with body language, action, and/or hard verb tags it would have taken up pages. Adverbs lead us by the nose through that living room. In fact that’s what adverbs do. Stop the reader from making decisions and tell them what to think. I also mention Faulkner’s Mosquitos. More adverbs than a Nancy Drew mystery. More silvery moonlight than should be legal. But it’s a marvelous social satire in a classic vehicle. What would it have been without adverbs? Who knows. The man has a Nobel Prize, though, and Mosquitos was one of his very early works.
Outside dialogue – Pro Writing Aid has all these wonderful reports. How many adverbs outside dialogue. Three in 2600 words. I am informed editors hate adverbs and they are the sign of amateurism. Tell that to Hiaasen and Rowling and a long list of Nobel Prize winners, including Americans such as Faulkner, Morrison, Hemingway. Outside of dialog, foregoing tags because that is lazy, I see lines like “grossly underestimated”, “impossibly buff”, “completely insane”, as “oddly useful” on “certain occasions”. Where I veer on that would be “she tapped peckishly at her salad.” That’s in there with “pinkly”. Rewrite that one and don’t use another adverb like disinterestedly or morosely or the other cop-out, simile/metaphor. Think one verb, a direct BAM word, not a sorta verb and amplifier. Tough, huh? Work, even. Why bother when all those picky editors we were warned about let that shit slide? Because even if you give up, trying makes you better, forces you to look at your work one sentence at a time.
Not all adverbs are bad – We use them frequently as clarifiers – adverbs of place, degree, time, question, amount, affirmation or denial. It’s the adverbs of manner that are killers. Check out this writing advice from the internet -“While it’s almost always better to do without an adverb if you can, adverbs of manner are almost universally bad.” WTF? I mean I get it, but adverbs compounded with bad structure and repeaters? Further on that writing advice thought –
Here’s an interesting chart on adverbs from Ben Blatt’s Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve. I would urge you to check out some of Blatt’s research. He was prompted by all the writerly advice that seemed to run counter to what he experienced reading.
Funny how authors who vilify adverbs have made some measure of peace with them.
“I never say ‘She says softly’. If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft.” – Toni Morrison
That’s writing. As far as adverbs outside dialogue, when in doubt, cast it out. But if you need it to paint a scene, there you go. I’ll close this one out with the best line about a writing truth I’ve seen in a long time, complete with adverbs.
Later, watching his future ex-wife slide into a yellow Lambo driven by an impossibly buff young airhead, Coolman could only marvel at the durability of stereotypes. – Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl
A quote that begs the question that would do for next week – “How much time do you spend developing your stereotypes?” Don’t anybody get butt hurt, we all do it. Hiaasen wrapped 90k around them. Successfully. Again.
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