Why you actually need adverbs – really!

I have to admit I get irritated every so often with the current war on adverbs.

Achtung! Accursed Englander!
Achtung! Take zat, you verflucht adverb!

One of the outcomes is that well-meaning but inexperienced editors go through an author’s work slashing out anything that has even the slightest hint of an adverb, as if the author doesn’t know what they are doing (and sometimes the author is way more experienced than the editor).

Another is the proliferation of ‘writing software’ that advertises itself as being able to eliminate those pesky adverbs and ruthlessly highlights any word ending in -ly, for deletion.

So what’s the story? Well, let’s first think about adverbs. They’re a class of words that modify adjectives – ‘usually’, ‘certainly’, ‘undoubtedly’ and (wait for it) ‘yesterday’ among them. If they didn’t exist, we’d have a LOT of trouble writing proper sentences. No adverbial phrases: ‘I did that yesterday’, for instance.

So why the war on adverbs? The problem is specific: most writers at the beginning of the learning curve use them to modify nouns or as descriptors of mood: ‘”I agree,’”said Roger smugly.’ That lends itself to ‘telling’, not ‘showing’, which is usually upheld as another Bad Thing in novice writing. There is a lot I can say about the proper place of ‘telling’ – which does, in fact, have a place in good writing. Suffice to say, telling is appropriate and necessary too, but only if it’s properly used. Alas, adding an adverb to the end of a phrase isn’t one of those proper uses.

In the example I’ve used, for instance, it’s better to show that Roger is smug through some other description – even if that adds half a dozen words:

‘”I agree,” Roger said. Jane could feel the smugness in his voice.”

OR:

‘”I agree,” Roger said. Jane turned to face him: “Don’t be so smug.”’

See what I did? By ‘telling’ Jane’s reaction, I’m ‘showing’ Roger’s feeling – and there are several ways of doing it, depending on the wider context and purpose of the phrase. That technique deepens the writing, because it creates a sense of tension and emotion, and that’s what draws readers.

The extra words are not an issue. One of the reasons why writers use -ly words is because it seems, superficially, to be more efficient on word length than a half-dozen word phrase. But what counts more is the clarity of the reading experience, including maintaining the rhythm (‘beats’) of the whole passage.

So the issue of eliminating adverbs isn’t just a matter of slashing them out  – it’s part of a wider development of skill-set that embodies the broad skill of writing.

That’s one of the reasons why I object to these automatic grammar tools – they address the pitfalls into which most noob writers fall, but they don’t actually teach why the pitfall exists or show how all aspects of writing integrate together.

If you want to know more, watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


10 thoughts on “Why you actually need adverbs – really!

  1. Totally agree on the adverbs and show dont tell.
    Both are so ubiquitous in writing advice, it makes me sickly seeing the same stuff trotted out so often.
    The best thing I read was something to the effect of stop and ask yourself if you need advice before reading it.
    Great post.

    1. I think the main issue with ‘no adverbs’ and ‘show don’t tell’ is that it’s directed at writers on the beginning of the learning curve – which also means they don’t know how to apply them properly. A lot of the ‘grammar checker’ software, to my mind, is at the same point on the curve…

  2. I really absolutely emphatically agree with this post!! Personally, I am very much against the war on adverbs. I agree that a lot of this is because of the “show don’t tell” rule (which also makes me groan)- but I don’t think that a lot of these editors are thinking that they want people to elongate their sentences, like you did in your examples. Instead, it is the drive to pare down writing to the bear minimum. The trouble is a lot of the people that cite these virtues don’t even know why these ideas came into fashion in the first place- they forget that it was to do with a desire to popularise fiction for the masses. Now, that isn’t a bad thing- but since they do not know that this is the reason why they are simplifying their language, they are also blind to any counter arguments or counter movements. For instance, these people seem like they would be oblivious to the renaissant-romantic movement at the turn of the 20th century, with writers choosing to write succulent (and yes purple) prose- if not for that we never would have had Fitzgerald! It’s a very narrow mindset to mindlessly say one style of writing fits all and ignores other literary traditions and approaches. To my mind, it stifles creativity. There are many ways to write a book- and to have an editor systematically remove adverbs because in their mind *adverbs must be destroyed!* shows a huge amount of ignorance. (I have to say, if an editor doesn’t get this then there is no way that I would consider them qualified enough)
    And yes, I agree with you about show don’t tell- I can think of countless examples where an author has taken on a certain omniscient voice, often to philosophise, where they “tell” the reader exactly what’s what. All of this leads me to one conclusion: in any art form, rules are made to be broken. If you know what you’re doing and have control over your writing- there’s every reason to flout the rules- it makes for more interesting, more individual writing. It’s a shame that some people are so keen to crush that spark.

    1. I suspect a lot of the change in styling has come with cultural change – the paring down of language began centuries ago, after it had been built up in even earlier centuries. To me the Hemingway approach was very much in tune with the ‘modernity’ of his day – the paring back, visually, of earlier styles into modernism/art deco with its clean lines. The depth to which this is cultural always comes home to me when I read primary historical sources – the original words of people who weren’t deliberately creating, merely recording; and that paring back is reflected there too. It’s intriguing to see how English has evolved. But as you say, that doesn’t mean everybody has to follow suit today in order to be ‘right’. One of the most marvellous things about reading is an ability to experience variety – the richness of different styles. As you say, without purple prose we wouldn’t have had Fitzgerald – who can be read and enjoyed today just as we also read and enjoy Hemingway.

      1. Yes definitely! It was in tune with the modernity of the day- but at the same time there were denser works of literature around the same time that took the opposite approach. There is no one way of doing things and there’s never just “one” style that’s in vogue. It’s a mistake to see everything as uniform. Literature- like so many other things is never linear. Completely agree- it’s all about variety!

  3. I think the rules come from a desire to simplify writing by reducing it to a set of rules. The no-adverbs thing may come also from an assumption that Hemingway and Elmore Leonard are the only writers worth emulating, hence that pared-down style. I totally agree with your remark about rhythm. I sometimes find myself counting syllables and looking for words accordingly. This is where reading your work aloud is valuable.

    1. I often read my work aloud – for that very reason. It has to have a sonority. It’s also an amazing proofing technique – the act of reading aloud is so different from reading silently that it forces things to the surface that might otherwise have been buried. That paring back trend has been around a while – to my mind Hemingway and others pushed it along, but didn’t create it. I believe it came specifically out of journalism, but to my mind was a reflection in writing of a general paring back in the arts during the early twentieth century – witness the switch from art nouveau to art deco stylings. In all this I suspect the First World War was implicit – an accelerator of social trend of all kinds. (I have to go and re-read ‘Farewell to Arms’ now… :-))

  4. I have two of the things that I use. Mainly to pick up things like forgetting to close quotes and using a full stop instead of a comma in a conversation. This is to make life easier for my editor’s eyes. (My books are long. Around 130,000 words.)
    You should see (well, probably not) but it is a challenge what these things do with a 1st century AD setting. When I mention fellowship (that’s what the early church groups called themselves) one of those ‘checkers’ up it jumps and tells me it is sexist language. Not allowed workmen either.
    LOL
    I feel sorry for the newbies who accept all the changes without reading to see it fits.
    Susan

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