CAUTION: ADVERBS CROSSING

I’ve talked with editors who will rant and rave, practically foam at the mouth, on the subject of adverbs. I remember reading Stephen King’s warnings against same. I once went through an author’s manuscript with a search for ly and took almost all of his dozens and dozens of unnecessary adverbs off to a nice farm where they could run around all day and play with the other adverbs.

But unlike the semicolon there actually is a legitimate reason for the existence of adverbs in the English language (see how I did that, interjecting a blanket dismissal of the hated semicolon into a perfectly innocent sentence?). And contrary to what you may remember (if you’re old, like me) from Schoolhouse Rock, not all adverbs end in -ly.

 

 

Indubitably!

But I think there are two reasons most editors and some (but still way too few) writers are so sensitized to adverbs:

They Often Tell Rather Than Show

This is a problem primarily in dialog. Far too many inexperienced authors fall back on ___-ly in dialog attribution and though it’s perfectly fine to use adverbs in this way sometimes, it doesn’t take much to cross that invisible, irregular line between perfectly fine and editor-maddening horror. Here’s an example:

“I don’t think they see us,” Galen said quietly, his eyes glued to the circling orc sentries.

In that example I think we get why Galen would want to say that quietly, but even then, what if there was a word that meant “to say something quietly”? I’d rather use that one. Hm, let’s see:

“I don’t think they see us,” Galen whispered, his eyes glued to the circling orc sentries.

In fact, I think this is even better, because “whispered” makes me think he’s speaking even more quietly than merely “quietly”, which might be his normal voice, just a little softer. But here the scene demands that we know Galen is either speaking quietly or whispering because if not, if he just speaks in his normal voice, the orc sentries will hear him. The fact that we “see” Galen whispering “shows” us how his behavior is changing based on the situation at hand.

Where we get into trouble is when that adverb tells us something about the character’s mood. One of my least favorites:

“Well, now they heard us!” Galen said angrily.

I get it. It is possible to say something angrily, but that’s telling us that Galen’s angry rather than showing us he’s angry, and it’s in these little details that that “show vs. tell” really lives.

Galen closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and with a face turning red growled, “Well, now they heard us.”

I even got rid of the exclamation mark, which you should use an average of once every manuscript.

Okay, maybe a few more than that, but that’s a rant for another post!

In that second example, we get to see what Galen looks like, and the verb of speaking, “growled” adds some specific character to his voice. This adds up to more words than “angrily,” but I think it’s more interesting to read. We understand our fellow humans’ facial cues and body language. And that’s what we’d experience if we were there and Galen was speaking to us. But the real cardinal sin would be this:

Galen closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and with a face turning red growled angrily, “Well, now they heard us.”

Now you’ve both showed and told us that Galen is angry, which does not score extra points.

Some adverbs, known as intensifiers, are hopelessly overused: very, extremely, really, etc. Again, these aren’t words you need to just delete sight unseen, but use them sparingly, with a keen eye to what it is, exactly, they’re intensifying. For instance, can something be “very unique”? Unique means one of kind, how can you be more one of a kind than anything else that’s one of a kind? “Totally destroyed” has always been a phrase I’ve had a love/hate relationship with. In general it’s probably better to reserve intensifier adverbs for something that’s in an incomplete/partial state, rather than the other way around, so “partially destroyed” makes more sense than “totally destroyed,” since “destroyed” means the thing is, well, all messed up.

People Make Them Up

Once upon a time there was a novel in which a character who was a wererat, and who had rat-like features, etc., was made to say something “rodentially.” Y’know, in the manner of a rodent.

This is why editors hate adverbs.

When I looked up “rodentially” in the dictionary, no results. When I looked up “insanely” there it was. Good rule of thumb there: if your -ly construct’s in the dictionary, you’re clear for take off. If not, you might still be okay, but most likely not. Let that be the point at which you pause and think: Is there a better way to say this?

I bet there is.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to CAUTION: ADVERBS CROSSING

  1. Thanks for this. I plan to share it with my writing group. Maybe, if they read and follow it, I can focus on more helpful aspects of their writing during our critique sessions.

  2. Michael A. Espinoza says:

    An excellent post. The examples are much appreciated. Too often, writing instructors say “no adverbs” and fail to explain to the class why they should be cautious with these forms of speech, and in what alternative, superior ways they can convey their point. Well done.

  3. Sal says:

    Another name for the Devil is Tom Swifty.

  4. schillingklaus says:

    I love adverbs; ergo, I won’t be deterred by any fascist King of contemporary fiction from using them — and semicolons — shamelessly and massively.

    • Philip Athans says:

      That’s the spirit! Rules are made to be broken, but first you need to know the rules–soak in all the advice you can, then process it entirely as you see fit.

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