A Writer’s New Year Confession – I Don’t Hate Adverbs (Or Adjectives)

The poor adverb. What did it do to turn everyone against it? How does a perfectly legitimate part of English grammar become a literary pariah? Was there a “dark and stormy night” moment that led a secret conclave of agents, editors, and publishers to decree it is no longer welcome? “A curse on adverbs! We will no longer accept manuscripts that use them! So let it be said and done!”

I know adverbs get overused, especially when we tell when we should show. And a story written in 2012 that’s full of “he said forcefully” or “she said wistfully” constructions will never escape the slush pile. And okay – sometimes they’re just redundant to what they modify, as in “He ran quickly.” I get that.

But adverbs are all over my drafts. And they serve a useful role there. Adverbs are my place holders as ideas rush out and my fingers can’t keep up with them on the keyboard. Later, when I’m editing, they remind me what I was thinking. “He reached clumsily for his keys” can be revised to “He fumbled for his keys.” Or, “She said gently” reminds me to make sure her dialogue makes that feeling clear.

You can see them in this early draft from Death Out of Time:

Madeleine suspected it had fallen soon after it was erected and had quickly been covered by soil and grass. [passive, too]

Or

But then she added more firmly, “Of course—the carver could’ve transposed the numbers.” [ooh – not just firmly, but more firmly]

I feel the same way about adjectives. When I look back on those early drafts, they’re everywhere, too. Summer at the Crossroads was full of “doublets.” For example:

Even though they hadn’t seen each other in three years, they quickly moved on to more philosophical and retrospective issues, something they had always done, even as teenagers. [check for adverbs, too]

Or

They decided on a split of pinot gris for the evening meal, opting for its cool and crisp citrus accents on the hot and muggy evening. [I got two doublets in there]

All right, that last one is total overkill. In my defense, the story was only two months old at the time. But some schools of thought would strip those sentences down to nothing – “The wine refreshed them,” or something like that. I want a happy medium. Just as I like body and flavor in my wine, I enjoy some descriptors in the books I read. It’s probably no surprise that I’m not a Hemingway fan.

And so, I won’t remove them all when I polish the manuscripts. After all, they’re part of the language for a reason, right? I believe there’s always a place for a few of them, well-placed, within my novels. And if the day comes when I’m lucky enough to attract an agent and publisher, I plan on fighting to keep them in the manuscripts – or at least some of them. (Excuse me a moment – the Muse just fell out of her chair laughing. . . .)

My argument is that sometimes we have to tell instead of show to move the story along. And an appropriately placed adverb (or adjective) can speed that telling along. Is that so bad? Sometimes that gently/roughly/irritably/calmly modifying word . . . just . . .  sounds . . . right.

So who’s with me? Who can give adverbs (and adjectives) a little love?

PS. And now for a random thought on the rule of “show, don’t tell.” What are writers? Story tellers. What do writers do? We tell stories. Just a thought.

30 thoughts on “A Writer’s New Year Confession – I Don’t Hate Adverbs (Or Adjectives)

  1. I like adverbs too. They help me to savor the moment in a story. Lines like “the wine refreshed them” seem rushed. I think you will find your happy medium.

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    • Rushed describes the modern world, doesn’t it? Everything has to be instantaneous now. There should be some areas where we can relax and catch our breath — savor the moment as you said. And for me, reading is one of those. Hopefully an agent will agree!

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  2. Oh, I do wholehardely enjoy a strong and powerful adjective in an otherwise weary and dull passage, but I do not enthusiastically endorse the adverb, although I do solemnly agree that it serves a useful and important purpose as a place holder as you so courageously pointed out.

    There, that should do me for awhile 😉

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    • I’d originally plopped a couple more of them in the post. But I edited them out. Despite the post’s topic, sometimes less is more 😉

      But even if more have to come out of the books, you can bet I frequently use them in conversation!

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  3. This is so true: “serve a useful role there. Adverbs are my place holders as ideas rush out and my fingers can’t keep up with them”. Precise evaluation. They hold stuff together waiting for just the right word. But you are also right that sometime adverbs just sound like they belong there. Possibly because at one time stories were told orally? Sound is very important in language and stories. Great post to start the new year.

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    • Yes, sound is so important. We do come from that oral tradition. And an agent or writing instructor who tells us to “lose the adverbs” will also tell us to make sure our written words flow well and sound right together. Sometimes, it takes an adverb to do that.

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  4. Excellent post. I am – was – no, still am, and adverb junky. My beta beats me over the head with them sometimes. I love this: “Adverbs are my place holders as ideas rush out and my fingers can’t keep up with them.” I’m so conscious of them now, I’m having a hard time getting through my first draft without trying to catch and fix them all. I’ll have to start thinking of them in terms of place holders and keep on trucking. Time for fixing on the next draft.

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    • Ah, your beta is doing his/her job! And so are you. It’s hard to write without editing sometimes. We want things to be “just right” from the very beginning. And, of course, that’s impossible. But successful writers find the paths that work for them. Yes – let’s all keep on trucking in this New Year!

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  5. Every book I read has a few adverbs in it. I think there is a trick to using adverbs so they work with the sentence and aren’t a crutch. I wholeheartedly agree that they are great placeholders in a draft, but many times a stronger action verb during revision can remove the need for an adverb. Then it’s just an extra word that doesn’t really contribute much to the sentence. Those are the adverbs that need to be annihilated.

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    • I definitely replace most of them with better verbs as I revise. But a few always withstand multiple rounds of edits. And those are the ones I think should remain. We’ll see if an agent or editor will someday agree….

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  6. I like the “adverbs are place holders” idea. After all, we never submit our drafts to editors and if you are like me I do a search for adverbs, passive voice, and, when my critique partners gently point it out, my favorite repetitive words in whatever I’m working on. BTW, thanks for stopping by my blog.
    C.D. Hersh–Two hearts creating everlasting love stories.

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    • Oh yes, passive voice and favorite words. I have to be careful with those, too. Passive sneaks in from my day job. Favorite words, well, they’re just favorites, aren’t they? Honestly, I’ve been editing way too many “honestlys” out of a couple of characters’ dialogues!

      PS – thanks to you, too, for stopping by mine! I enjoy reading about the journeys of fellow writers.

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  7. Such a helpful post. I’m writing a first draft and it seems adverbs are my friends. Or, at least, they’re hard to escape at the moment! This is invaluable: “Adverbs are my place holders as ideas rush out and my fingers can’t keep up with them on the keyboard. Later, when I’m editing, they remind me what I was thinking. “He reached clumsily for his keys” can be revised to “He fumbled for his keys.” Or, “She said gently” reminds me to make sure her dialogue makes that feeling clear.”” Thank you. 🙂

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    • I am so glad that idea has caught on with readers. I wish I could’ve articulated it in my head when I started writing my first draft of my first novel! But now it helps me through those early drafts – I don’t stop my flow of thought and switch to editing when I realize I’ve used a lot of them. And those early drafts should focus on writing and getting the story down, not choosing the final, perfect words.

      Maybe I should take that clip and make it a sticky post…. 😉

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    • They’re everywhere! (Adverbs – hopefully not fights in marketing meetings)

      Would losing the -ly’s be a potential cost-cutting measure? Fewer letters to print? Less space needed for an ad or copy?

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  8. Adverbs are a crucial part of the language. How else does one comunicate certain things? ‘He swam quickly’ couldn’t really be replaced by anything else simple and clear. Love this post and I totally agree.

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    • I absolutely (adverb!) agree on their importance. Why else would they stay in the language the way they have? Certain words can become obsolete, but I don’t see any sign that adverbs are disappearing. And I can’t believe they should be confined to “literary” works or academic/professional use.

      Like anything in writing, they can be overused. But they’ve never detracted from my enjoyment of a story.

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  11. I’d like to quote your words on adverbs in my own blog, including a link for the origination of it here at your blog page, if I may have your permission to do so. (I can’t find a “contact me” button so I’m posting this here. Note to self: Figure out how to set up a “contact me” button on my own blog, if there is a way.)

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    • Hi, Steeny Lou, thanks for the follow! And you have my permission to quote about adverbs. 😉 Somewhere in the WordPress changes, it looks like they revised the settings for contact information. I know it used to be there. There may very well be a widget for it—I’ll have to look into it, too.

      I hope correcting the doctors’ grammar was simpler than deciphering their handwriting!

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