As a writer, you’ve heard the “rule” about never using adverbs. This rule is wrong for two reasons:
- There is nothing wrong with adverbs.
- 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.
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).
57 comments on "The "Avoid Adverbs" Rule is (Very) Wrong"
I really liked this post. I’ve had similar thoughts on the adverb issue for a long time. As someone who studied Greek and Latin in school, I have always found the anatomy of syntax fascinating and could not understand how any particular organ in this animcal could be thought of as useless. Just to continue your discussion a little, one test I use for adverbs is the ‘redundancy test’. For example, in ‘She ran quickly’, ‘quickly’ could be considered redundant. But in ‘the fire burned brightly whenever the demon was near’, ‘brightly’ serves a purpose. Fires can be dim or bright, strong or weak. Also, with regard to specifcity, there are sometimes reasons to use an adverb instead of a more specific word. One reason too often ignored is musicality. To return to the example, ‘burned brightly’ has a bit of rhythm and alliteration. To say ‘the fire blazed’ is okay, but ‘burned brightly’ has a little music to it. To say ‘the fire flared’ might be all right, but ‘flared’ might be too different in meaning, too strong, with connotations of flare guns and wizards.
Well, just a few thoughts. Thanks again for the great discussion.
Thanks, Carl. When reading this comment, I was going to say “burned brightly” could be “blazed” or “flared”, but you took the thoughts right out of my head and took them further. Bravo. You nailed it: rhythm, meter, sound. If that is what you are going for, those are the right word. But you need to know what you are going for, which you do. Again, bravo.
Well said, Matt. I think you’ve made the point writers need to hear: the sloppy use of adverbs is the real problem, not adverbs per se. Adverbs give sentences life and individual character; otherwise you’re just spouting facts and figures. I can get a machine to do that.
Sing it, Matt! Rules are for wimps. The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees doesn’t even have a protagonist in a traditional sense and it got nominated for a Hugo. The adverb one bugs me too. It’s good practice to be mindful of when we’re using them but that doesn’t mean we never should.
Hi, and thanks for this post. I have spent some time thinking about “rules” like this, and it was good to hear your take on them. I am currently reading the Patrick Melrose novels and they are full of adverbs (and still very wonderful I think).
I put some thoughts in this area into this post on Melrosian modifiers,
Greetings from Ola in Sweden.
Great article, Ola. Thanks for posting a link to it. And thanks for stopping by!
I was advised to eliminate all of them, then, alternatively, limit them to one per page- but it’s tough.
Reblogged this on Scott Kaelen and commented:
Brilliant post concerning adverbs. I came across this after one of my critiquers reminded me about the ‘adverb rule’ by picking me up on a couple of points in my writing. I have to say I completely agree with Mr Moore on this — the use of adverbs does not make you a weak writer, though a weak writer is more likely to over-use / wrongly use adverbs.
Thanks, Scott. Glad you found this post useful and passed it along.
Embarrasingly, I’ve just noticed I mis-typed ‘adverb’ as ‘averb’. Horror! 😉
I’ve edited it above.
Reblogged. Good post!
When it comes to adverbs, what I like to do is run a search in my word processor for “ly.” Then I look at each one and ask myself if I really want that and if it’s really the best way to say it. I would definitely not eliminate every one, but it helps me catch where my writing was weak. I think of a lot of these rules as guidelines — not to be slavishly followed, but considered. There are so many rules you can’t write a grocery list without breaking one of them.
This is a good idea. Aside from “ly”, a good idea is to search for “was” and “because” since those can make for weak writing. “Was” can be passive voice or distance the reader. Consider “He was wearing a red jacket” vs. “He wore a red jacket.” A small difference, but it can matter. Or “It was hot” versus “The heat pressed in.” As for “because”: Well, that’s concluding for the reader.
Thanks for leaving a comment!
I agree that there is a purpose for adverbs, but bad writers tend to use them frequently (case in point). Why is that?
I think because it is easy. Also, English tends to be a language that prefers to be simple, as opposed to some other languages, such as French, that prefer to be more nuanced. Here in the English-speaking world, too often we find someone with a rich vocabulary is looked down upon as “highfalutin'” or “thinks he’s better than us.” As a result, I think we all default to common terms and plain language. It takes an effort to find an evocative verb; it’s easy to say “said quietly.”
We have a new member in our writing group who has been shoving the no “ly” words “rule” down our throats for weeks. Thank you for your well reasoned article. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying: If the sentence doesn’t need it, take it out. If it adds to what’s going on, leave it in. As you say, as well, it’s just advice – good advice when it comes to avoiding weak writing of any kind, and bad advice when it comes to murdering an entire part of speech. Thanks! You know I’m taking this article with me to my next group meeting. I’m so confrontational. 😛
Thanks T.S.! Let me know how it goes.
I thought I’d replied to this already, but I just want to say I agree with every word. There’s only one actual rule of writing: “If it works, do it; if it doesn’t work, don’t do it.”
Thanks for stopping by, Nyki. Well said.
Thanks for the link!
Thank you for writing this excellent article! Various people (and a certain famous author) have been trying to shove rules down my throat. I am both a visual artist and a writer. I was thinking to myself, isn’t writing an art? Aren’t you supposed to reach deep inside yourself and pull out something wonderful and maybe even unique? If I try to slavishly (uh, oh) march in lockstep with what everyone else says is the only way to go, isn’t that a bit cowardly? (uh, oh) I’ve been taking quite a bit of heat from people because I am writing a horror story in which the villain is basically all evil; no good in this guy at all. I’ve been told that is unrealistic and bad writing because no one is all evil. Doesn’t matter that this character is based on a deranged criminal I knew who is all evil; doesn’t matter that the world is filled with sociopaths and whatnot. A famous writer said that a villain who is all evil is always bad writing, and since he’s famous and rich as hell, he must be right. I’m not trying to write well here in this post; I’m in a hurry. Sorry for the mediocre post. I just want to thank Mr. Moore for being so blooming smart.
I say, as kindly as possible: If you are not an editor, you mostly don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to this subject. You don’t see the problem in the field. Do you want to know what it really looks like out there?
I am an editor — I see about 100 mss a year — and I have a front row seat! Like, for example, the writer who sent me a chapter today. The tally? How about “just” 18x; “really” 17x; “very” 14x “only” 12x. In 4k words! (And that’s not including the more random quickly, silently, etc.)
This prose is practically unreadable –though sadly, not that unusual — and I say, humbly, that if you’re not receiving raw mss, then you don’t see the problem in its natural state. Nor do you know how hard editors have to work to get some writers to even NOTICE their overuse of adverbs.
You’ve got adverbs under control in your ms? Great!! And you mostly don’t see why we editors keep bleating about this? Fantastic! That means the handful of writers in your crit group have got their adverbs under control too.
And, wait, wait, yes, I know: “But I was reading author x, the guy who sold a bazillion books, and he uses adverbs all the time!” Yes, of course! Published books do have adverbs in them!
And they are at a nice reasonable number — moving the story along and not distracting the living crap out of you — because you are reading EDITED work! Work that by definition has had the adverbs considered, and the problem handled, if there was one. Do you know if there was one? How many adverbs were there originally? Maybe there are the exact same number in the book as in the ms. What do you think the odds are? Or maybe the editor removed every other adverb. Or two to one? How do you know? Have you seen the raw ms?
This “debate” sorely needs a little literary epidemiology, by us first responders (LOL. That’s funny, you know it is.) Put crudely: Just cuz there’s no incidence of polio(adverb overusage) in *your* world doesn’t mean there is no polio(adverb overusage) problem *the* world.) And I stumbled upon this post, btw, looking for an “adverbs are the enemy post” to send that client. 🙂
I don’t think anything in Matt’s article claimed that adverb overuse isn’t a problem. Overuse of any element of writing is a problem (the clue’s in the word “overuse”). The problem is that there really are people out there who believe in “go through your work and delete every single adverb in it” – and that’s rank bad advice.
Far better advice would be to go through your work and make sure every word counts, deleting anything that’s redundant and rephrasing anything that’s worded weakly. Do that, and you’ll find the adverb problem has gone away, without having to make an arbitrary “rule”.
Thanks, Nyki. Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. 🙂
Great advice, Nyki!
I guess we just disagree. The title of the post is “the avoid-the-adverbs-rule is very wrong.” And I don’t think it is wrong (or “very” wrong) at all. I think writers should be advised to avoid adverbs. And I think writing improves dramatically when this rule is followed.
And I furthermore think advising a writer “to take out every unnecessary word” is ludicrous, again, in the field. The ms I used for my example is at 112k; and it should be about 90k. The writer thinks all those words are necessary; if she didn’t, she’d have removed them already. There’s a reason she’s shown up in my inbox, and that’s because she knows something is wrong, but she’s not sure what it is.
So the first thing I’m going to tell her is to avoid adverbs, and explain why, which is going to send her back into the ms with new eyes, and magically, the writing is going to improve right before her eyes as she deletes, deletes, deletes.
The rest of the post plays with the idea of “rules,” and whether there are any…. And again, I just fundamentally disagree. There are rules, which can and should be broken in certain instances, of course. And generally, in my world, telling a writer there is a rule about something elicits stunned silence, then an “oh,” then a “wow,” when they start applying the rule and their prose brightens up immediately.
Again, I think this is an issue of perspective. I’ve just never found myself in the position of advising a writer to put in more adverbs, or that he’s too closely followed certain rules and needs to shake things up to make the writing better or more interesting. Likewise, I don’t worry about the folks who think that “avoid” means “take out every single adverb in your ms” because in something like thirty years of reading mss I’ve literally NEVER seen an ms like this, or had a writer ask me if he should really take out all adverbs.
So I think most of the discussion on the “avoid the adverbs rule is wrong” side of the street (meaning, I’m not singling out this post) is a lot of setting up and destroying straw men, at bottom.
And thanks for the offer of guest-blogging Matt. I’ll keep it in mind, though at the moment I just don’t have that much to say besides this. 🙂
Hi Karen: Thanks for sharing your experience.
I’ve been a slush reader. I know what you mean! Some work is so overly, bluntly, exceedingly overwritten. But the overuse of adverbs is like word saidisms or As You Know Bob—weak writing that comes from a lack of experience. Or confidence. That is the problem, not an element of grammar. My point is writers take it to the extreme and eliminate them all, like somehow to use a single adverb makes you a bad writer. I’m just trying to show it’s not a “rule”, but put some context around where the “rule” came from.
I’ll compare adverbs not to polio, but blood pressure. Too high is not good, but too little lacks life. We need to find a happy medium.
But you’re an editor and it sounds like you have your share of stories. If you want to guest blog on my site, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (using the address you used to comment so I know it’s you) and we can work something out.
Isn’t “until” a conjunction and a preposition?
I’m not talking about the word, but the phrase functions as an adverb in that it modifies the verb.
Adverbs are for weak, hack writers. I can see why you like them so much. You are mediocre. You’re basically saying the likes of Stephen King and J.K Rowling are weak writers. Which is hilarious. Continue to be pretentious.
I hope you feel better, now.
And thank you for making one of my points.
J.K. Rowling actually uses quite a bit of adverbs in her writing. Example from Chamber of Secrets:
“Careful not to walk through anyone,” said Ron nervously, and they set off around the edge of the dance floor. […]
“Oh, no,” said Hermione, stopping abruptly. “Turn back, turn back, I don’t want to talk to Moaning Myrtle -”
“Who?” said Harry as they backtracked quickly.
Stephen King advises against adverbs, but he does use the occasional well-placed one.
So really, YOU’RE the one saying they’re weak, hack writers.
If you read King’s thoughts on adverbs, you’ll find them to be the same as the conclusion in this article to use adverbs as long as they add something. In his opinion adverbs are redundant most of the time, so always check if they really make the writing stronger. Like Matt, he points out overusing adverbs often come from a lack of confidence.
Reblogged this on Brimming Heart, Empty Page and commented:
“Never Use Adverbs”? Go away, please.
Reblogged this on Peace of Writing and commented:
Ahhh…the poor maligned adverb. I completely agree with Matt Moore’s 2012 post (and not just because we share the same last name) that there is a time and place for adverbs. Yes, we should avoid sloppy writing and be precise with our words, but that doesn’t mean adverbs should be avoided at all costs. On the contrary, adverbs are a basic tenet of language. “To advise young writers to get rid of all their adverbs is like advising a pitcher with four great pitches to throw only three of them — it’s professional suicide,” Cris Freese, Writer’s Digest.
I had this line:
*An unworldly scream echoes around the house…*
It was suggested I change it to this line to get rid of the -ly:
*A goosebump-raising scream echoes around the house…*
Both are of course adverbs. Thanks for pointing this out.
Hi Nicholas – Thanks for sharing your experience!
In this case, because “unworldly” modifies “scream”, it’s an adjective, not an adverb. But, I think that just proves the prejudice against “ly” words. Someone, somewhere said to kill all “ly” words and whoever gave you this note obeyed without thinking it through.
And I like your original line better.
“until” is a preposition, not an adverb!
Settle down. No need to yell.
“until” is a preposition on its own, but in this case “until his armed burned…” is an adverb (or adverbial phrase, if you want to get down to it) that limits the verb.
Thank you so very much! 😉
Great article and comments.
On another similar topic — I see a lot of comments from the “show don’t tell” proponents. I can’t help feeling this rush to have everybody obsessing over this idea could end up with a narrowing of descriptive language. I’m not sure trying simplifying language is always right. I love some of the old writers like George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James — the list goes on and on.
Great discussion. This clears a lot of thoughts for me.
Anybody who says you shouldn’t use adverbs in writing fiction clearly does not pay close attention to the literature they read. It is difficult to find any published book that does not make regular and effective use of adverbs. Even Stephen King’s work is replete with adverbs despite being famous for advocating against their use.
Yes, there are lazy ways to use adverbs and sometimes you are better off describing something in a different way, but adverbs have their own advantages. The power of the adverb lies in the imagination. Readers aren’t idiots, they don’t need every single image spoon fed to them by the author in excruciating detail. An adverb allows the reader to put their own imagination to work and communicates ideas succinctly. Adverbs are like any other tool, whether physical or metaphorical: if you use them incorrectly, the results will be disastrous. A skilled writer doesn’t avoid adverbs, they use them well.