Saturday, March 29, 2014

Assiduously Avoiding Adverbs

Assiduously Avoiding Adverbs

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain.

I finished the first draft of one of my novels a year ago and let it sit for quite a while before diving into the editing process. Most writers will advise letting your manuscript breathe for a spell: you have just poured your heart and soul and maybe some blood, sweat and tears into this work and trying to revise straight away can be overwhelming and undermine objectivity. So I gave it time and when I got back to my labor of love, I fully expected to catch some errors and discover some good opportunities to tighten things up. Oh did I ever, and had that been all, I would have been ecstatic. No such luck. A loathsome adversary had infiltrated the world I’d created, lurking in my blind spots as I drove my story forward, blind spots borne of good intentions and zeal, but blind spots nonetheless. It had lurked and then struck and colonized quickly, feeding ravenously upon the wonderful work I was just sure I had created.

Adverbs. The bane of many a literary existence.

Adverbs are your Enemy. Usually.

Stephen King proclaimed that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”—perhaps a tad severe, but perhaps not. I cringed more than once as I waded through my adverb-infested jungle, the delete button my machete and saving grace. “Employ a simple, straightforward style,” Twain exhorted. Equally estimable guidance, and hacking away a majority of adverbs is a good way to follow it. And I say majority, not entirety—for I suspect in writing we ought never say never. If a good adverb can evoke the desired effect, and that effect cannot be better achieved without it, then keep it. In the end, good writing is good writing and while I rather doubt any manuscript riddled with adverbs constitutes such a thing, the occasional employment of adverbs in an overall well-written work can probably slip by. The writer who writes well will have in essence garnered the benefit of the doubt. Hell, even Twain used some. Consider this passage from Chapter One in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

Presently a fair slip of a girl, about ten years old, with a cataract 
of golden hair streaming down over her shoulders, came along. 
Around her head she wore a hoop of flame-red poppies. It was as 
sweet an outfit as ever I saw, what there was of it. She walked 
indolently along, with a mind at rest, its peace reflected in her 
innocent face.

In the last sentence, lo and behold, we find an adverb. She walked indolently along. Is the indolently necessary? I’d say, yes. I know she is ten, an age not unfamiliar with bouts of indolence. And Twain’s description is vivid: “a fair slip of a girl,” “a cataract of golden hair,” “a hoop of flame-red poppies.” I’m there, I can see her, and indolently seems to me to fit quite well. But that’s just me.

And yet that’s the point. That’s just me, the reader.

Trust the Reader

When I was hacking away in my adverb forest I found myself contemplating the root of the problem, and time and again it came down to the reader, and the need to trust them. Twain may have gotten away with it in the above example, but in the many instances where adverbs do not enhance narrative, and often reduce it, I think a certain lack of faith in the reader and subsequent insecurity in one’s writing are often conspiring culprits (not contemptuously conspiring culprits, though). Let’s look at a few of those instances (get ready to cringe):

Alyssa grimaced intensely as the pain returned.
Phillip locked the door and cackled ominously. 
Donald shouted thunderously. 

Are they the worst sentences in the world? Not really, but they’re not great. Most grimaces are, by definition, intense. Cackling is perhaps not always, but is often, ominous, particularly following the locking of a door.  And if the author has succeeded in setting the tone and building the story and letting us get to know Phillip a bit, we already understand the malevolence of his cackle. In the final example, shouting is already a pretty loud thing, so “thunderously” seems pretty self-indulgent. I suppose I could live with “Donald thundered,” but my main point would be that adverbs tend to reside most insidiously in dialogue attribution. When I weed out sentences like this in my writing I find that more often than not I have not trusted the reader, and therefore not trusted my writing, deciding I’d better hold their hand and script out for them precisely what it is they’re supposed to see and feel. Alyssa didn’t just grimace, see, she grimaced intensely. Can’t you just see it? Well, it depends. Have I to that point engaged the reader with good writing, good characters and a good story? If I have, then I can purge the vast majority of adverbs, for most of them are apt to be so much puffery, slotted in to prop things up rather than writing things well enough that they can stand on their own.

Trust your readers. They have their own relationship with Alyssa and Phillip and Donald; let them see and hear them as they will.


  1. You have some excellent points here. I'm certain I will have some adverb slashing to do of my own when I finish my novel. I love the quote from Twain about "very." I got rid of a couple of those in the submission I finished yesterday.

  2. Thanks Charity. :) Good luck in your slashing...I can certainly fall into the adverb trap...they have their place, but it should be limited, and strategic, I believe. Best wishes!

  3. I love adverbs the same way I love sarcasm. :-p

  4. I'm with you, Woelf. :)

    And, I'm never sarcastic.