Unauthorized Rule #4 – Don’t Be Afraid of Adverbs

Newly inspired writers work hard to get the attention of a publisher or an agent. We can easily be influenced by the opinions of bloggers, authors (famous or otherwise), and agents or editors within the publishing industry who advise on writing style and techniques and what to avoid when submitting your work. One caution we tend to see dispensed with fair regularity is that one ought to avoid adverbs.

It’s unfortunate that adverbs have become the pariahs of the literary world. They get such scorn from so many, it’s as if using them can ruin your writing career. It seems nowadays writers have erred on the side of overly spare writing in an effort to strike those modifying words from the record.  It’s said that words ending in “ly” weaken your story and tag you as an amateur of the craft, someone not yet ready for the privilege of being published because you fortify your wimpy action statements with modifiers.  After reading Stephen King’s memoir/book on writing, On Writing, one would imagine the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Hey, he’s what one might call a household name in the literary world, so when he pipes up with such a dictate, we should assume it to be true.

But the road to hell? A career ruiner? That’s an awful lot of power to assign to the use of a legitimate part of speech. From where did this paranoia originate?

I believe that contempt for adverbs is contrived, something invented to encumber the newly initiated. Creating fear around appropriate language is like handcuffing the able bodied simply for what– crowd control? After all, so many people are writers nowadays or at least aspiring ones.

Come on, people! Have some back bone. An adverb is a perfectly appropriate writing tool. However, I agree that using adverbs effectively is quite another matter, something that requires writers to be thoughtful about selection, placement, and frequency. As in my first blog about, “Show Don’t Tell” it’s primarily a matter of not imposing upon our reader.

I’m one of those writers who likes “ly” adverbs. I especially like to use them in my first draft. Adverbs free me from overthinking my stories to the point where I would get hung up on which words to use. I use adverbs with impunity in my first iteration because sometimes rules can unconsciously encumber a person’s creativity.  Hmmm… unconsciously – good adverb. See: adverbs don’t have to be the poor relation of the grammar family. They indeed have their use. So I no longer suffer from adverb anxiety.

Yet I appreciate that the rhetoric has created the great adverb debate. To use an adverb or not to use an adverb? Perhaps Shakespeare would’ve approved. It’s not until my first edit that I take careful note of whether or not each adverb is appropriate. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not. The nice thing about writing is that your first version will never be your final product. Let your adverb be like an exotic spice, that if left to deepen its flavour will either stand alone and be a triumph, or will coalesce with the other spices into something exquisite.

The one exception to my “free to be you, me, or adverb” is with dialogue tags. That’s where I draw the line because when we assert how something is said or done in a dialogue tag, it intrudes on the reader’s experience of hearing or experiencing that moment herself.

Ex: “You’re always telling me what to do and how to act!” Mary said angrily.

It stands to reason that the writer should ensure that the dialogue itself indicate the tone of Mary’s voice and her emotion. Meaning any additional adverbiosity in the tag is redundant. Why would you have to “tell” the reader that Mary is angry? It should be so evident that the reader implicitly gets it.

On the other hand, let’s be a little softer on ourselves. I mean, let’s say you did use an adverb there. Would the reader slam your book shut and say in a huff, “Well, this writer is using adverbs, and I’m not going to take it anymore”? Probably not. It’s just that dialogue is something we like our readers to play out in their minds using the words provided to form pictures of the written scene, and for that reason, the tag should be as unobtrusive as possible. But really, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence. My deepest apologies to Mr. King, but we must be allowed our own style and expression. It’s our readers who will be the ultimate judge.

I may not be a grammar guru, but I am mindful of the rules. I understand why so many prominent writers caution against their use, but I say free to be you and me. Sometimes we have to trust our own ears and that means using adverbs where appropriate. They are a proper part of speech, and best of all, they are not illegal.

My next post focuses again on my characters. That rule is going to be a lot of fun: Rule # 5 – always put your characters in terrible danger… even if you love them.

by Marianne Scott author of Finding Ruby.




2 thoughts on “Unauthorized Rule #4 – Don’t Be Afraid of Adverbs

  1. This is such a good piece, Marianne. Made me want to go right out and hug a lonely, shunned little adverb!

    Liked by 1 person

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