Nope, wrong

As a writer, you’ve heard the “rule” about never using adverbs. This rule is wrong for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing wrong with adverbs.
  2. There are no rules in writing… unless you are a weak writer.

What’s wrong with adverbs?

Not using adverbs is the bastard mutant off-spring of some excellent writing advice: be  precise in your wording.

  • Don’t say “very big”. Say “enormous” or “huge”.
  • Don’t say “said quietly” but rather “whispered”.

“Very big” is sloppy writing. I agree with that.

I also agree that adverbs can distance the reader or fill in details the reader should be filling in. Too many adverbs take away the reader’s ability (and right) to put their own interpretation on a story’s events. Mark Landen knocks this idea out of the park in his blog post.

And too many adverbs (or adjectives) just gets wordy.

But this does not mean you have to excise an element of grammar. Eliminating adverbs is like eliminating gerunds, adjectives or any grammatical form. That is, there’s a difference between taking issue with weak phrasing that uses adverbs, and eliminating all adverbs just because you think it’s a “rule”.

To say nothing of those shouting “NO ADVERBS!” only target “ly” words. Any word or phrase modifying a verb (or adjective (or adverb)) is an adverb:

  • Kyle smashed the zombie’s skull until his armed burned and flecks of rotted brain covered the sidewalk.
  • After surviving the exodus from New York, Lien would never trust another soldier.
  • Gregor stumbled back, avoiding Ilya’s grasp.

Use adverbs for effect

While adverbs can distance the reader, they can also have a powerful effect. In a story I just finished, “That Which Does Not Kill You” (available in Fear the Abyss from Post Mortem Press), I wrote:

It was how she examined and selected the limbs that freaked Teller out. Gently, delicately. Almost lovingly.

By using dry, clinical words like “examined” and “selected” and then contrasting them with three “ly” adverbs, I want to throw the reader off balance.

Or, consider the opening paragraph to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which many consider (including this great breakdown) one of the most perfect openings in genre fiction. I’ve bolded all the -ly adverbs for your reference.:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Imagine how less effective this would be without the adverbs.
So, go ahead and use adverbs as long as, like every other word in your story, they add something. But if you rely on them to make up for shortcomings, that’s when there’s a problem. But the problem is not the adverb itself. It’s more complicated than some rule.

What’s wrong with rules

I have found the “no adverbs ” acolytes, who love to slash red ink through every adverb in a manuscript, treat writing like there’s a checklist of what must and must not be in a story. This is weak writing. And weak writers.
As beginners, we seek tips, tricks and techniques to help our writing. It’s a shortcut, a way to become better faster by learning from established writers’ successes and failures. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with a list of things to check for in your stories.

A great book. I learned a lot and highly recommend it. But it’s just advice, not rules.

The trouble is when an established writer’s experience—and then multiple established writers’ experiences—becomes another’s dogma. Rather than finding their own style, they form an amalgam of other writers’ rules, elements, beats and structures. Anything that does not include all of those elements, to them, is bad writing because “So-and-so said you have to…”

For example, a “rule” of writing is don’t have a nameless, faceless protagonist. But my story “Touch the Sky, They Say” has a nameless, genderless character. But not only did I sell it to a SWFA market, it was nominated for an Aurora Award and Editor Helen Michaud pointed it out as an example of how to break that rule.

Another “rule” is to never end a sentence with a preposition. Ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable in English grammar, but some love to berate writers for doing it because somewhere, at some time someone said it’s wrong. (Writer’s Circle has a great piece on this.)
Writing is art. There are no rules. Grammar, spelling, narrative coherence—you can ignore them and still tell a good story. When talking about “rules,” we’re talking about advice, sign posts, and common elements we find in excellent stories. But there are wonderful stories that break these rules and reject these conventions.

Now, you ignore them at your own peril. Readers (and editors) have certain expectations and breaking them does not make you a genius or original. But there is just as much peril in slavishly following all of these rules. In other words, always consider advice, but use what works and leave aside what does not ring true. You are an artist—trust your intuition. (But be prepared for, and open to, criticism… and rejection.)

Beware the rules & checklist crowd

Don’t be intimidated by those with the checklist of what every story must contain. They don’t understand the difference between “I didn’t enjoy the story because the narration’s adverbs became distracting” and “This story uses adverbs, therefore it is a bad story.” In this second instance, the story taken as a whole might be wonderful, but the checklist crowd can’t get past their iron-clad rules. Consider what they have to say, but don’t take it as gospel.

And sometimes, they wield the checklist just to feel superior. In critiquing their work (or they, yours), they reply: “Well, Vonnegut/VanderMeer/King/Scalzi says __________.” As if quoting some sound byte taken out of context invalidates your opinion or overrides your creative freedom.

It’s all advice

In closing, let me say this: All of this is advice. If this doesn’t ring true, don’t do it. I’m one guy and this is what works for me. In the end, we’re all alone with the voices in our head. Listen to them, listen to others, balance the two… it’s your call.

Now get writing (quickly).