Monday, March 31, 2014

Are Adverbs Justly Verboten?

When it comes to writing, I am pretty much a lonely autodidact.  I greatly suspect a lot of writers are, also.  I have no formal "creative writing" training, I basically taught myself through trial and error and reading great writers.  So when I was told at my local writers' group I shouldn't use adverbs (or -ly words as they are sometimes called) I was suddenly surprised.

Then it was explained that because beginning writers tend to thoroughly over-use them, they are told not to use them at all but if you're an experienced writer you can "let a few slip in."  And, to be honest, since hearing this advice, I have strived diligently to minimize their use.  I especially like to avoid using them in "said" sentences such as " . . . he said sadly" or " . . . she said happily."

But I think eliminating them completely is a mistake.

When I write I really like to use powerful words that paint an image.  If I, for instance, want to say:
 Joe tripped and fell. 
I will tend to say:
Joe stumbled, lost his balance, and was slapped to the cold, hard concrete.
To me that paints a much better picture.  But, also to me, that sentence needs one more word to make it nearly perfect:
Joe stumbled, lost his balance, and was painfully slapped to the cold, hard concrete.
 Yes, an adverb!  A modifier to describe the verb "slapped" to me adds so much more to that sentence.  And if I try to eliminate the adverb, I have to use some clunky construction such as:
Joe stumbled, lost his balance, and was slapped to the cold, hard concrete with a lot of pain.

My advice is to use adverbs sparingly and to the greatest impact possible.  There are a lot better ways to indicate someone is sad than say " . . . he said sadly."  And this gets into the "show don't tell" part of writing (oh, perhaps another blog post is warranted).  Instead of saying he said it sadly, show that he was sad.  You could write " . . . he whimpered, his eyes full of tears."

Now, I did break my own rule.  In my novel to be released May 15th, Gods of Strife, I have a line:
"Apparently the lady doesn't wear underwear," the hotel dick said lecherously.
 But the scene was such that I didn't feel it would have been completely appropriate to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the hotel detective's lechery.

I don't think adverbs are an evil never to be used.  I think their judicial use is justified in good writing.

And yes, I purposely put a lot in this blog post.


  1. I absolutely agree with your finely stated opinions! LOL.
    You're right. I like that it's semi-verboten, because that keeps us on our toes. But, like you, I find they do come in handy.

  2. to some extent i agree. the problem is once i let them in, they tend to take over. however, in my recent novel i think i only had 3 adverbs in the whole thing. i was very exceedingly happy with that.