Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Definitely, Absolutely, Positively No Adverbs


Good grief. When I only manage to post as the abstracts, I really sound like a whiny brat, don't I? Writing is haaaaaarrrrrrddddd. Deadlines suuuuuuuuck. And the Project Manager is meeeeeeeeaaaaaaaannnnnn.

I've even managed to scare off most of my bots and I can't say I blame them.

So for those of you still hanging around, how about we get back to other writerly things and dissect some writing advice? I've got a doozy all lined up for today, a personal favorite of mine.

Use adverbs sparingly.

This bit has a lot of sources, but the most popular one these days is probably Stephen King's On Writing. (For my review of the book, click here.)

Here's an excerpt from what Mr. King has to say about adverbs.

"The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox 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 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."

King goes on to give a few examples and to compare adverbs to weeds and such. He's particularly concerned with adverbs attached to dialogue tags. He mentions that he is a writer like all other writers and has, on occasion, used an adverb or two, but he firmly believes "the road to hell is paved with adverbs."

I like that last bit best. Because the phrase he references there is this: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I happen to disagree with Mr. King about adverbs, or at least I don't think you should take it to quite the same degree. I believe for the most part that adverbs are well-intentioned. We want our readers to see and hear what we're telling them and sometimes an adverb feels like just the thing to boost their basic understanding into clarity.

But there's an underlying, very ugly assumption there that the reader is stupid, that they can't understand what we've written as well as we do, and so we have to make our meaning as clear as possible and spoon feed it to them on modifier at a time. And we all know what they say about assumptions. . .

The problem with good advice though, is that it too is often well-intentioned and thus paves our path to the exact same place. And there are those who took King's words as gospel and went out on a holy mission from God to purge the vile adverbs from our midst, saving our writerly souls from themselves.

And suddenly King's "The adverb is not your friend" becomes "The adverb is a messenger of the devil and thus it must perish in fire (and strikethroughs)!!!!!"

I'm not for banning adverbs. I'm not generally for banning words of any kind. Words are wondrous and beautiful things. I love words. I have devoted my life to them and regret nothing.

Besides, I have it on good authority, that of the late, great Mr. George Carlin, that no words in and of themselves are inherently bad. It's the context, the intentions of the user, which makes them good or bad.

If you're writing something and you believe an adverb is the right word for the job, I say go for it. Employ that adverb and feel good about it. If you love adverbs and definitely, absolutely, positively adore the rhythm of stringing a bunch of them together, that's your artistic choice. As with all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art your way.

If, on the other hand, deep down you think the reader just ain't gonna get it and you need to place an adverb here, there, and everywhere in order to shepherd the poor fool through the complex wonder and glory that is your lyrical prose. . .

Well, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog, because you and I aren't going to agree on very much about the fundamental nature of writing and the relationship between writer and reader.

So I say don't ban your adverbs. They're not weeds. They're not evil messengers of the devil. They're words. Tools for the writer to employ or not as they see fit. As with all parts of speech, when deployed effectively, an adverb can elevate the reader's basic understanding into clarity. The key word there is effectively.

Adverb totally intended.

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