Thursday, July 13, 2017

Editor's Notes #34: What's So Bad about Adverbs?

"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Schoolhouse Rock not only made my Saturday mornings both fun and educational as a kid, but its catchy songs have stood the test of time. Most adults I know—those who grew up in the US during the 70s and 80s, anyway, as I was reminded by S.K. Anthony, who grew up in Venezuela—can still sing the classics like "Conjuction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill" with ease. Thanks to a complete DVD set when my children were young (and now the Internet availability of pretty much everything), the younger generation can learn grammar, science, and more without pain.

But I have to say, songs like, "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here" have made it sound like adverbs are all fun and games. Maybe this is why some writers tend to use adverbs like there's no tomorrow . . . until their editors get out the Red Pen of Doom and have at it—also like there's no tomorrow.

It's not that we hate all adverbs. It's just that we recognize them as a sort of cop-out when a writer is too inexperienced or lazy—or ignorant of a better way—to explain something. Stephen King has this to say about them: "The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs . . . seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind." Even Mark Twain was known to say, "They don't excite me," when referring to adverbs, contending that they are best when far apart.

In short, the fewer, the better when it comes to these babies.

And they're not to be feared, either. When people rely on adverbs as a bailout, that's where the trouble comes in. Adverbs are not all bad. They can be useful in so many ways. But the "manner" adverbs—those which typically end in -ly and somehow end up attached to dialogue tags—are a crutch in many cases. If a writer never branches out from the easy adverb, the writing will never grow into something better.

Consider obvious examples such as:
He left the room angrily.                                                                                                   She came to him trustingly.

Can you picture anything there? Is it exciting or descriptive? How about this instead:
He threw his phone against the wall and shouldered his brother out of the way as he raced from the room, muttering words that should have made us all blush.
She put her sippy cup on the table with all the care a toddler could muster, and climbed up beside him on the couch, plopping herself onto his lap as if the seat had been marked "reserved" for her.

There's a little more color to the second example, and hopefully a better picture of what's happening.

There seem to be as many proponents on the "death to adverbs" side of the picket line as there are "we love our adverbs" sign-holders on the other. As with anything, a little common sense goes a long way. One person's hard & fast rule is another person's guideline. One writer may effectively use adverbs and another may feel crippled by them. My personal opinion? As with anything, too much of a good thing ceases to be a good thing.

Perhaps there's an Adverb Awareness Month I haven't heard of, or a support group for those who can't seem to let go. In the meantime, friends (and critique partners) don't let friends . . .


  1. Don't let friends write and adverb.
    In my last couple books, I was on a hunt and destroy mission when it came to adverbs, especially those ending in ly. (Like especially!) I eliminated all ly words. Ironically, my critique partners had me put a handful back in...

    1. I am an unapologetic remover of adverbs, though I find them in my own writing. I think I justify mine because I'm not writing a novel, just a blog. But if I *were* to write one, you can bet I'll be on the hunt!

  2. Basically, I've gotta' agree with your post. Especially after reading the ninja dude's comment.

    Adverb Awareness Support Group would also help.


    1. Your comment was exceedingly apt, mostly because you agree with me. Always a good move. And Ninja Dude is spot-on.

      Garyly, you always make me smile.

  3. Friends don't let friends use adverbs.


    1. Otherwise, hand over your key(board)s.

  4. I've never even noticed whether I use adverbs a lot or not in my writing. I suppose that means that I don't.

    1. You must not, then. They become obvious after a few looks when there are too many. Good for you!

  5. In all fairness, there ARE some times when an adverb is better than a regular word.


    That was a groin-grabbingly good time.
    We're doing it bigly.
    This comment is cancerously awful.

    Okay, I just made that up. Back to your spork-stabbingly* awesome post.

    *even more awesome than watching someone get stabbed with a spork

    1. I'm dying—maybe literally—at the "groin-grabbingly good time." I do believe you've hit upon one of those magical times when the adverb really fits the need.

      Groin-grabbingly = it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

      There are times when I've made a list of overused adverbs and the number of times they appeared in a particular manuscript, and seeing the "these don't lie" numbers was a real eye-opener for the author. That same author threatened to use "brownly" as a retaliation. I shot it down, of course, but now I wonder if I should have given "brownly" a fair shot at adverbial fame.

  6. I’m not in love with adverbs, but cutting *ALL* adverbs is pretty impossible since they're an indispensable part of speech. I don't think I use them much, but as my editor you can tell me if I abuse them or not lol

    After all, adverbs aren’t just words that end in “-ly”. Other words like “tomorrow,” “sideways,” “fast” or any other word that modifies a verb’s time, place, or manner is an adverb . . . I'm pretty sure I learned this from you lol

    But as far as the "ly" words, as I like to say it does have its place (once in a blue). An adverb used in the right context can, after all, be seductively bewitching. ;)

    1. I agree, they're a part of speech for a reason. I don't think you abuse them at all! [runs back to look in Kinetic and Static to make sure I'm not lying]

      It's the manner adverbs that really seem to trip people up, seductively bewitching or not. I think the dialogue tags are where they're most abused. But you know me and my intolerance of odd dialogue tags . . . I swear I suffer from Irritable Dialogue Tag Syndrome.

  7. My name it JT and I am a user of adverbs.
    During first and second drafts I will find many I can replace. And obviously I leave some because my editor conveniently removes them for me. BUt as previously mentioned they have their place, just not in dialog tags.

    1. Admitting is the first step to healing!

      Dialogue tags are where I look for them first, because that's where they seem to have the most misuse.

      By the time your next MS is ready, you'll be so good to go . . .

  8. I read your post eagerly! ;)
    I know just what you mean. Excess is always a bad idea.

    1. Unless it's chocolate. I'm pretty sure there are exceptions when chocolate is involved.

      But adverbs . . . well, we don't want excess for sure. Thanks for visiting and commenting!


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