Sunday, September 8

Adverbs: They Can Be Your Friend

adverbs can be your friend

In elementary school, I was given a thesaurus and told, “Go nuts!” Let's just say that my 4th grade teacher never met an adverb he didn’t like. 

To make a long story short, my 4th grade teacher was all kinds of wrong. 

Use Adverbs Sparingly

Though grammar has never been my strong suit, it helps me understand the truth behind the admonition against purple prose. (Stay with me, I will explain this.)

Adverbs and adjectives help communicate a state of affairs by modifying other words. For example, in the sentence, The lazy cat slept on the mat, the word lazy modifies the noun, cat, because it tells us what kind of a cat we’ve got on our hands.

That sentence (The cat slept on the mat) is okay. But there are other, more active, ways we could communicate the thought that your favorite feline is a slacker. For example: The dog chased his ball, the bunny nibbled her carrot but the cat slept. 

Now (of course!) I'm NOT holding that sentence up as an example of terrific writing, but I think it’s stronger. Why? Because it communicates the cat’s character by introducing other characters and comparing the cat’s behavior with theirs and then leaving it up to readers -- to you -- to draw their own conclusions about what sort of character the cat has: lazy. (Or perhaps the cat is just more chill. I think good writing encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.)

Bad Writing Advice

In a minute, I’m going to say something controversial. I’m going to say that one piece of writing advice you’ve been given all your life, advice that seems very good -- advice that, actually, IS very good -- is advice that the best, most popular writers do not themselves follow.

Stephen King is, hands down, my favorite writer of all time and I think that anyone who is serious about improving their writing -- and we all should be interested in that since we all write, even if the only thing we do is tweet -- needs to read On Writing. 

One of Stephen King’s best pieces of writing advice is this:

“The adverb is not your friend.

“Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late. (Stephen King, On Writing)”

And King is right. That’s fabulous advice. He then goes on to say: 

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.”

So, for example, 

“Put it down!” she shouted

Is okay, but 

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly 

is definitely not okay.

And I agree. I have no evidence that Stephen King has ever committed that particular sin (putting an -ly adverb after a verb in dialogue attribution). However, when I searched the 726 books in my dataset (I’ve been a busy little programmer lately) I found that Stephen King was one of the writers who most frequently used the form, “bla bla bla,” she said -ly.

Why do I bring this up? Because I think King is both right and wrong. 

Yes. Using adverbs in attributions is something one should avoid. In the best of all possible worlds the reader will already know how the speaker is saying whatever it is they’re saying (angrily, sarcastically, etc.).

No. We’re human. This is not the best of all possible words. I grew up reading writers who used adverbs in dialogue attribution, Stephen King among them. And, IMHO, it works. I’m not saying that it’s something a writer should do -- I try and avoid it -- but sometimes it’s okay. 

When I read one of Stephen King’s stories there’s a point, a threshold, after which I’m not reading words, I’m inside the story. I’m not reading about characters, I’m looking at them. If using adverbs in dialogue attribution gets your readers there, then so be it.

What is the point of writing? What is the goal? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the years and, for me, it’s this: To snare my reader. I want to transport them to a world, a universe, created in my imagination and amaze them, I want to make them feel as though the time they spent reading my story was time well wasted.

That’s it!

I’m back posting. It’s been a couple of years and a lot has changed in my life. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of writing and reading. I’m looking forward to the future.

photo credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.