Don’t Dismiss Adverbs!

Spellbinding SentencesBelow is another guest post from WD author Barbara Baig, whose new book, Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence & Captivating Readersis designed to help writers master the power of the English language. You’ll learn the different qualities of words and the many way those words can be combined to craft sentences that hook readers. In this post, Barbara talks about the importance of adverbs (though some swear them off) and how to use them effectively in your writing. This is the type of information, instruction and guidance that you can find throughout Spellbinding Sentences.

You can read Barbara’s other guest posts here: The Mastery Path: For Writers Who Want to Be Great and The Power of Observation: How to Observe and Improve Your Writing.

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Not too long ago, on Facebook, aspiring MFAs were proudly announcing that they had spent entire revision sessions excising from their manuscripts every word ending in “-ly.” Quoting Stephen King (who was perhaps quoting Nathaniel Hawthorne), they assured each other that The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs. Well, with all due respect to Mr. King and Mr. Hawthorne, it just ain’t so.

To begin with, an adverb is not merely a word that happens to end in -ly. An adverb is one of the four content parts of speech (the others are nouns, verbs, and adjectives) which enable us to construct sentences. Every part of speech does something in a sentence: nouns name things, verbs provide action, adjectives and adverbs add to or limit or clarify the nouns and verbs. A writer determined to eliminate adverbs will be a seriously handicapped writer, for adverbs can make more specific, add information to, not only verbs, but also adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs, like the other content parts of speech, are an essential for every writer’s toolkit; they can do things that the other parts of speech cannot.

The “death to all adverbs” crew also clearly don’t understand that adverbs are not only single words. Every content part of speech—noun or verb, adjective or adverb—can take different forms. That’s because a part of speech is a role that a word, or a group of words, plays in a sentence. So the role of the adverb can be played by a single word: Joe went home. It can be played by a phrase: I’ll call you in the morning. It can even be played by a dependent cause: We’ll eat whenever he gets here. And, as in this sentence from Dickens, an adverb structure can encompass other adverbials and adjectives: He lived in a gloomy suite of rooms in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide and seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. 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.

Many aspiring writers struggle, not because they don’t have great ideas or wonderful stories to tell, but because they don’t have the words they need to communicate those ideas or to tell those stories. They try desperately to find the “unique voice” agents and editors want by paying close attention to their innermost selves. But these writers are looking in the wrong place: Voice is not a function of a writer’s self, but of her skill with words. Writers who want to create a distinctive voice on the page need to learn everything they can about how words work, about how they can be combined into sentences. Just like singers, writers who want to develop a great voice need to practice their techniques, over and over and over, so that those techniques become part of them, able to be used at will when they’re drafting and revising.

And just like trained singers, writers who’ve mastered technique can make magic with their voices, captivating their readers and making them turn pages. Such a writer’s voice can pulse with vitality, swing like music, create all kind of effects inside readers, compel them by sheer syntactical energy to keep turning the pages. It can only do these things, though, when the writer—like all those great writers from earlier eras—has studied, practiced, and mastered the repertoire of syntactical techniques available to those of us writing in English.

Including how to use—with precision, with care, with passion—the adverb.

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Barbara Baig is the author of the Writer’s Digest books How To Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. Having taught writers for over thirty years, she now teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University and at www.WhereWritersLearn.com.

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10 thoughts on “Don’t Dismiss Adverbs!

  1. iDeals

    A writer determined to eliminate adverbs will be a seriously handicapped writer, for adverbs can make more specific, add information to, not only verbs, but also adjectives and other adverbs.

  2. Sundance 244

    As with all words, Adverbs have their place in good writing. One of my writing teachers suggested that in revision, when you come across an adverb consider if there is a single word that would describe what you are trying to modify with your adverb. If yes, use that word. Your sentence will be stronger. If not, stick with the adverb. A simple lesson I keep in mind when I jot down an “ly” word.

  3. William Cory

    Just about every writer I know read King’s On Writing, including me. But, while reading it and noting his stricture to never use adverbs, I did find two of them in the book. Horrors! He had violated his own rule! But that’s how it goes when you have an editor who wants writers to always avoid absolutes, like the word “never.” (Yes, irony intended.) In King’s writing elsewhere, I’ve also found a number of adverbs. Oh well. It only goes to show that no rule works all the time. But, in actual fact, King’s rule was aimed at adverbs being used in dialog, where the writer could use better dialog instead of adverbial explanation. His point, at least the one I got, was that if someone says, something like, “Shut up!” to another person, and you want it modified, it would probably be better off writing, ” ‘Shut up!’ she purred.” instead of ” ‘Shut up!’ she said purringly.” . Anyway, that’s just my take. I’ve found it’s not difficult to avoid using “-ly” adverbs, but the use of adverbial phrases is unavoidable.

  4. Pettifogger

    Yes, but—–

    It would have been more helpful had the article explained the rationale behind adverb animus. It is that adverbs often are used to tell, thereby operating as a substitute for showing. I still struggle with this, and I also sometimes intentionally slip in an adverb to sharpen the focus of the showing I am trying to bring out in the passage. But unrestrained use of adverbs will generally result in telling without showing.

  5. Joel Dulin

    I loved the example Barbara pulled from Dickens; adverbs can be beautifully used. The key to using them is like what MLGriggs said: you just have to use them consciously. Perhaps King/Hawthorne should have said, “The road to hell is paved with the poor use of adverbs.”

    I love articles that remind me to break fake rules.

  6. MLGriggs

    Precise word selection is key to driving a story forward. When editing, don’t remove the adverb until you have reviewed the verb it modifies; if a stronger verb conveys the message, then change the verb and remove the adverb.

    All parts of speech are inherently good, but the way they’re used may be right or wrong.

    Imprecise verbs need modifiers to prop them up. Overuse of adverbs may have led to the “death to all adverbs” mission, but removing all the “ly” words is lazy editing which follows what may or may not be lazy writing.

  7. johnmorrisbenson

    One accomplished writer who is reading my latest work is also attacking adjectives.
    So, is that an alarming trend also? How could, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” have been said? Without glass the whole meaning is lost. Should we throw away meaning to save ink?

  8. writerdeeva

    How much did I LOVE this article…let me count the ways…..
    Who was the brilliant person who thought up this “rule” anyway???? Taking away adverbs is 1/4 of our basic tenets of language (verb, noun, adjective and adverb) that we all learned as children. Shame, shame shame. Maybe that is why are becoming a society of non-verbal people. I use adverbs ALL the time and they aren’t going anywhere! In this industry that wants a short and concise story because of lack of attention span and cost of printing….I think the adverb was the easiest thing to pick on. Well, fight on for the adverb!

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