Monday, July 5, 2010

A Luke Warm Defense of the Adverb

If, as a writer, you're anything like me, the adverb, at least in the first draft, is your dearest friend. When you're in the midst of the fresh new love affair with your story, adverbs seem like a natural element which are at home sprinkled among your verbs and adjectives, frolicking with abandon and adding spice and verve to your prose.

And then you turn your baby over to your critique partners and whammo! the red (or whatever color your CPs use) "track changes" marks slash all of your lovely adverbs and you get vicious comments about choosing stronger verbs.

Adverbs are a class of words which modify verbs, adjectives, clauses, sentences and even other adverbs. They typically answer questions like: "when," "where," "to what extent," "in what way," and "how."

Although there are several different kinds of adverbs (including comparative adverbs [more/less]; adverbs of place [outside], purpose [in order to], and frequency [always/never]), the most commonly criticized in fiction is the adverb of manner, or the -ly form. Supposedly, these are the "scarlet letter" that mark writing as amateurish and weak. But I would argue that used judiciously and in proper circumstances, adverbs of manner can enhance your story.

There are several reasons why -ly adverbs are frowned upon in fiction:

1. They are redundant. In the sentence, "She screamed loudly," the loudness is already implied by the screaming, which is generally understood to be loud.

2. Adverbs make it easy to choose weak verbs. Compare: "He turned abruptly and she moved quickly toward him, 'I hate you,' she said harshly" with "He spun to find her stalking toward him, 'I hate you,' she growled." Still pretty melodramatic, but no cheesy adverbs!

3. By cutting adverbs you give yourself opportunities to show rather than tell. Instead of telling us that your heroine is beautifully groomed, describe for us her hair, her makeup, or the colors and textures of her clothing.

4. Why not choose a strong action verb instead? Try "sprint" instead of "went quickly" or "crave" instead of "really want."

5. Adverbs of manner are frowned upon in fiction because they tend to be distracting and prevent the reader from experiencing emotions or delving into the intentions behind the action. Good writing needs to pull the reader into the experience of the story rather than just relating what's taking place.

However, there are situations when -ly adverbs are appropriate, such as:

1. In dialogue. Realistic dialogue would include the use of adverbs because people actually use them when they talk. "I probably shouldn't steal money from my mother's purse because she will be seriously pissed off at me if she finds out."

2. They work as awesome placeholders when you're deep in the frenzy of a first draft and you don't want to take the time to craft the perfect sentence or search for just the right verb. Slap in a "looked longingly" and find a better verb in revision.

3. As long as you use them sparingly in places where they work hard and produce strong results, then -ly adverbs can be your friend.

As you can see, adverbs of all persuasion play an important role in fiction, but the dreaded -ly adverb can be especially tricky if you're not careful. However, if you use them sparingly and responsibly they can enhance your writing beautifully. (you see what I did there?)

Now, you tell me how you feel about adverbs!


Merrilee said...

Well said :)

Little Ms Blogger said...

Exactly the same way. I get so caught up trying not to use them, and always wonder we hate them so. (I know the reason, but wish they weren't so frowned upon)

Sherrinda said...

lol...I blogged about this today! How funny! I love the -ly adverb. I know, it's kinda stupid, but I think they are pretty words. But I'm learning to eliminate them, and increase my vocab to include better action verbs. :)

Olivia J. Herrell said...

I'm with you, when used sparingly (hehe), they're magical. :)


Tessa Conte said...

LOL HAH and AHA all at once. I do overdo the adverbyness but I still thing they were invented for a purpose.


; )

stu said...

Essentially, people have problems with adverbs because most poor writers use them constantly.

The result seems to have been writers going to the other extreme. I have also noticed that their use is much less pronounced in US English than the UK version, not least in an occasional tendency to use adjectives for adverbs (real for really, for example)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tessa Conte said...

You've earned yourself a postcard, so email me to let me know where to send it... *runs off to look for hunky pictures*