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]
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]
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.