Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.

13 Responses to “Never use an adverb!”

  • Greta van der Rol Says:

    Rob, I LOVE this stuff. I abhor the Rules of Writing Nazis. But as you say, there is a kernel of truth in many a rule. Thank you. I shall broadcast this to both my followers on Twitter.

  • Adele M. Crouch Says:

    Thank you for this, big help to us newbies.

  • Robb Says:

    I used at least 25 adverbs in this post, by the way. Hmmm …

  • Phillipa Says:

    As always a good sane rational post on the poor old adverb. I picked up a book the other day that I loved when I was a teenager – there was no such thing as YA in those days – My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrel. I settled down to have a lovely time with an old friend and found I just couldn’t stomach his adverb and adjective use.I read this book 3 or 4 times in my teens, but now I find it unreadable. I guess use of adverbs is a fashion thing as well, but as we live in the now and the current preference is for strong spare prose then we must use our adverbs judiciously.

  • Rachel Says:

    Your advice to tune out “always” & “never” statements is a good rule of thumb for life in general. Great post and useful too (as all great posts should be…I think). :-)

  • Alexander Says:

    I went to work in a London magazine publishers and was instantly a hick from the sticks among my sophisticated London colleagues. A supercilious sub editor one day asked me what I was reading, his voice drawling. Oh, I stammered, Durrell! He shifted and looked, for the first time, mildly interested.
    ‘Lawrence?’
    ‘No,’ I said, shame heating my face. ‘Gerald’…

  • Phillipa Says:

    There’s no shame in reading Gerald Durrell. I adored his books.

  • Catherine Byrne Says:

    Glad to have found your blog. good advice. Thank you for posting.

  • Jennifer Sosniak Says:

    Thanks, Robb. Your posts on writing are always so helpful to me.

  • Matt Says:

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on splitting infinitives.

  • Chris Karim Says:

    Stephen Crane CERTAINLY ignored that rule, or did it surface SOMETIME after he wrote “The Red Badge of Courage”? Considered by many a classic!

    My use of “sometime” is deliberate, because without it, one might interpret the sentence to mean that the rule surfaced as a direct result of “The Red Badge of Courage.” I doubt that to be the case.

    Adverbs are smart. They have come to realize that they are not well liked, so they mutated, with some words not carrying the dreaded “ly”. lol (Because when the purported pundits say, “Never use an adverb,” they are referring to the ‘ly’ ones.) “Never” is one example; so TOO are “about”, “almost,” and “thus”. THERE are others.

    Sometimes adverbs are necessary. To say, “He died.” is not the same as, “he almost died.”

    Great post, Robb!

  • Simon Says:

    Excellently advised, sir. :-)

  • Gwen Hankins Says:

    I think your article is extremely helpful. I agree that the use of adverbs is like spices. I can’t and don’t want to “cook”. But I have magnificent ones around me to observe. Each has there on secrets and “rules of thumb”. Still there are core rules to “cook” (I use the word cook-because there is no limit to titles and references to preparing food that will offend or praise such a person). I also agree with the comment on writing “fads”. Great article and great comments. Thanks