Michille: Adverbs and Other Writing ‘Mistakes”

adverbsElizabeth’s post about Nancy Drew earlier this month brought up some reasons for the success of that series. It brought to mind one of the things that pops into my head whenever I see the blanket advice that adverbs are bad – cut them. The ghost writers for the Nancy Drew series used adverbs heavily – Nancy and Ned and Bess and George did everything somehow-ly. When I write my first draft, I also use a lot of adverbs. In editing, I type ly in the find box and try to strengthen the verb that is qualified by the adverb. Sometimes I can and sometimes I like the way I wrote it in the first place.

I found a good article about removing all those ‘bad’ things. In it, the author states that the great literary writers used passive voice and adverbs to layer complexity in their stories. I saw another one in which the author said he listened to a best-selling author tell a group to never use the word said because it’s boring and repetitious. The writer said to never repeat verbs that deal with speaking. The author of the article then gave a funny excerpt where he did this using words like mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and even ejaculating. It ended up being more of a joke than a passage of fiction.

Getting rid of all these bad things – adverbs, passive voice, gerunds – can lead to homogenous writing. This sentence is a good one (IMHO): Softly, slyly, Sylvia leaned close to Buck and said, “Let’s you and me spend a little time together, and never whisper a word about it to your wife.” It breaks some of those ‘never use’ rules and I like it. I will continue to search my manuscripts for *ly, was/were, and *ing, but I will cut them judiciously.

For those of us who remember Saturday morning cartoons and Schoolhouse Rock – Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.

How do you feel about these rules? Do you break them intentionally or do you follow them?

13 thoughts on “Michille: Adverbs and Other Writing ‘Mistakes”

  1. I have to say that I’m pretty much a rules follower. For one thing, I learned the rules a long time ago, and it’s hard to undo a lifetime of practice. And I’m a professional editor, and I see improvable writing all the time. I recently read a manuscript that had a utterly fantastic story, but every time a character moved, s/he “walked” with an adverb. It’s important for beginning writers to see that repetitive usage and understand that a stronger verb is not just more interesting, but can reveal character, too. Does s/he slink, storm, stride, glide, rush? Perhaps you don’t have to show the movement at all. She can just get up from the chair and throw open the door. I’m all for variety and I’d never say, never use an adverb. But like everything, the words you choose should be a conscious decision that help to tell the story in the best way possible.

    • I agree and when I went through my manuscript I was able to get rid of more than half my *ly words. Of course some of those were words like ‘family’ so the total *ly word count isn’t necessarily adverbs, but sometimes adverbs work better – in speech because people say them or rhythm of the sentence are two examples I can think of.

  2. I have to say, thesaurus.com has become my best friend, for precisely the reasons Kay described above (find another word besides “walked”). I tend to use adverbs in my first drafts, then try to pick them out when I edit, but I think there’s a good use for them, particularly when you’re describing a sex scene. Otherwise, it just gets too wordy. Also in dialogue (and certainly for Regency-era dialogue, where everything is “terribly this” and “exceedingly that”).

    As for -ing and was/were, I pay more attention to was/were than -ing, because of the whole passive voice thing. It’s something I need to focus on, as it’s easy for me to slip into passive voice. But I don’t avoid it entirely. I think there’s a balance between these rules and having something sound/read well.

    • So true. Some of the incidents of ‘was’ that I found were easy to fix: she was kneeling – she knelt. I found the one blog post about using passive voice to layer the story interesting. I need to read like a writer for that in some of the stories that I like because them seem to be expressing more than one thing. I’ve been on a Courtney Milan kick lately (very tight, fabulous conflict locks) – I need to read her stuff like a writer to see if she does it.

  3. I say phooey to the rules. The adverb thing in particular drives me crazy – the whole of the English language should be our incredibly rich toolbox to create word pictures for our readers. It is crazy to rule out a perfectly good ‘tool’ – i.e. the adverb. In particular, I would say that Elmore Leonard’s rules were designed for a specific style of ‘noir’ writing that he did, and that is quite distinct from the genre/form most of us are writing in. Surely, the issue here is variety – of course, if someone whacks an adverb onto every verb, it looks clunky and crap, but so do lots of other things.

    Over on the (UK version of the RWA) RNA loop today, there’s been a long discussion about another current golden no no – the fearful head hopping. Although close third person is the current fashion for much of romance fiction, I can’t see any problem with the skilful use of an omniscient narrator (or changing POV mid way through the scene), as long as the reader is not confused.

    Rant over – it’s been a long day!

    • Rachel the Rebel – phooey to the rules. I like it. Variety is important. Using the best words to say what we mean is critical. On the head hopping thing, it doesn’t bother me per se. Nora Roberts does it all the time and I can follow it when she does it and sometimes it’s very clever. My writing is stronger having gone through and weeded some of this stuff out, but I don’t intend to take all adverbs out because someone decreed they’re illegal in fiction.

  4. I look at all of the “rules” out there as more like guidelines. I recently read a post (and I wish I could find it again) that had before/after examples of sentences that violated a variety of rules. I some cases, I agreed with the changes that were made to remove repetition or make the sentence more active or whatever, but in other cases, the changes changed the meaning of the sentence.

    So, during revisions I search for “-ly” words and evaluate passive voice and a host of other things, but I don’t automatically change them all because in the end, all I really want to make sure is that each sentence says just what I want it to say.

    • Guidelines is a good way to think of these things. One of the things I know I need is a brush up on high school English grammar. There is a great site I keep meaning to browse to brush up: University of Wisconsin -Madison Writing Center (https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/index.html). For example, I vaguely recollect restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, but as a writer, I should probably have a firmer grasp on them (too many commas can be added to my edit list along with *ly, was/were, ing and ‘just’).

  5. Before I started submitting my manuscript (last week!) I went through and removed a butt-load of adverbs. Most of them served no purpose other than emphasis, e.g. She turned white. Without it, the sentence said the same thing. Some sentences I rewrote. Overall, I took a couple of hundred words and I don’t think the manuscript will miss any of them.

    And some I left.

  6. You know, I think a lot of it has to do with voice. I have a certain fondness for alliteration, so that Sylvia sentence rang my bells. Slippery, slimy, slidy Sylvia, whispering willfully . . . .

    I think a lot of our “rules” come from a time when it was important to save space in a newspaper. Why use an adverb and a verb, when you can find an active verb that takes up less space (and lets you print more news)? We’ve got a taste for that brisk and compact language. It “sounds” right.

    We’ve also got a taste for other voices — my journalism prof had a phrase for “easy, breezy, magazine-y”, meaning slightly precious prose. Prose that is self-consciously light and gay (in the old sense of the word). And when my favorite writer talks about the “fruity tones of an announcer” — well, we know about that style of writing/speech, too. The character is selling you something.

    I find, myself, that often a sentence just reads better (in my head, or out loud) when I replace the boring verb/adverb combo with a single strong verb. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that verb takes over the whole sentence, when it’s just supposed to have a bit part. And sometimes, the phrase slides through my consciousness with more ease than that road-block of a verb.

    But that’s just my opinion. We have to remember, too, that a lot of readers have been told “adverbs are bad”, and some of them notice anything that ends with an -ly. It stops them in their tracks, and they analyze it (which is bad — they are supposed to be soaking in content and analyzing it while washing dishes). They think, “could the writer have done it better?”

    I think it’s not a bad idea on a later draft to search for all those ly containing phrases, and take a fresh look at them. Case by case. Not a blanket smothering.

    • I think that’s a really good point about reader expectations, Michaeline. Also, someone made the point in the RNA discussion loop that we are largely writing to impress agents/editors at this stage – and they probably also have an expectation of minimal adverbs.

      • I’m not sure the average reader has been told adverbs are bad. I think readers who are writers have been told that. And I agree that agents/editors are looking at them – but only when used to excess. If the writing is tight, having a few adverbs thrown in isn’t a deal breaker because sometimes they work.

        • I agree that mostly writers and editors are worried about a word just because it ends in -ly. But, I remember in high school English being told that adverbs are bad. And starting a sentence with a conjunction, which is one of my favorite tricks to make my prose sound spontaneous and a little breathless, (-:. “They” (ie: high school teachers) are somewhat right — depending on adverbs can lead to lazy verbs. Also, starting sentences with a conjunction tends to undercut authorial authority. But . . . rules are made to broken, gently but firmly. LOL!

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