ADVERBS: Friend or Foe?

Please Note: This article first appeared in RWA’s official monthly newsletter, Hearts Talk, in April, 2009. 

by Michelle Douglas

Oh dear, these comments aren’t painting a particularly pleasant picture of adverbs, are they? I’m seeing news headlines – Adverb Bites The Hand That Feeds It! Unruly Adverb Sends Blockbusting Novel Plummeting To Its Death! Adverb Bores Crowd Silly!

So what exactly is an adverb? And why are so many successful, published writers telling us to treat them as the hairy, scary vampire monsters of the writing world?

Adverbs add meaning to verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Simply put, an adverb tells us how, when or where something happened. Some examples:

 How did the lovers kiss?

  • The lovers kissed passionately.

When will the lovers marry?

  • The lovers will get married tomorrow.

Where did the lovers meet?

  • The lovers met in the garden.

In this light adverbs don’t seem all that sinister. In fact, it looks as if they’re downright essential. So why are we told to drive stakes through their hearts, cut off their heads and stuff them with garlic? For a start, wouldn’t it be foolhardy to avoid time and place adverbs? We need to let our readers know when and where events in our stories happen if we want those stories to make any sense at all. But all these doyens of the writing world can’t be wrong… so what’s the secret?

Stephen King isn’t talking about time and place adverbs when he says: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. He’s talking about adverbs that describe how the action was done – adverbs primarily ending in -ly (passionately, quickly, heavily). These are the ones that can suck the life out of our prose and set us on that path to hell. This is why Dwight Swain (author of Techniques of the Selling Author) suggests substituting action for the adverb. Hence, “The lovers kissed passionately” becomes, “His lips slammed to hers. Desire burst to life and she arched against him, her fingers curling into his hair to draw him closer, a silent order for him not to stop.”

Which one, as a reader, do you experience? Which one creates a picture in your mind?

As writers, it is our job to create an experience for our readers. We’ve all heard the maxim ‘Show don’t tell.’ Generally speaking, adverbs ending in -ly tell, they don’t show, and they’re the sign of a lazy writer. Does this mean, then, that we should go through our prose with wooden stakes to drive through the heart of each and every adverb that ends in -ly?

Absolutely and utterly not!

Henry James says: I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.

John Gardner gives a wonderful example when he says: Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously—a startling word that makes the scene spring to life. He also adds: adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox. 

One of the main gripes about adverbs is that they are redundant – too often they merely repeat the meaning of the verb. Eg:

  • She ran quickly through the woods
  • He shouted loudly at the dogs
  • She tiptoed quietly to the door.

In all of these instances removing the adverb does not change the meaning of the sentence. In fact, removing the adverb makes each sentence stronger.
So, when is an adverb good? John Gardner gave us the answer above – when it startles. An adverb startles when it modifies the verb in an unexpected way.

She smiled happily. She smiled sadly.

Which do you think is stronger? In the first example ‘happily’ is redundant. The sentence reads better without it. Smiled and sadly, however, is an unlikely pairing. The adverb ‘sadly’ immediately changes our perception of that smile. The song title ‘Killing Me Softly,’ is another example of a good adverb.

A word of warning, though, these wonderful and startling adverbs carry more weight when they are used with a light hand. Stephen King’s problem with adverbs is their tendency to sprout up like dandelions. I forone do not want a story riddled with noxious weeds. Adverbs, like any of the tools at a writer’s disposal, are only useful if we give them the right job to do. So, the next time you pick up you work-in-progress check it over and rate your adverbs – are they really doing the job you want?

Michelle’s third romance The Aristocrat And The Single Mum is an April release and has received 41⁄2 stars from Romantic Times. For more info on Michelle and her books please visit her website at:

http://www.michelle-douglas.com

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3 Comments

  1. mikey2ct

     /  May 16, 2012

    I’m not a writer but I’ve been reading for more than 60 years. I’m always on the lookout for articles on writing and learning to appreciate good writing.

    Reply
  2. In the exampled used in para 3, “The lovers met in the garden” , I think “in” is functioning as a preposition that begins the adverbial phrase “in the garden” so “in” isn’t an adverb in that sentence.

    Reply
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