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I Love Adverbs—Fight Me

Adverbs with hearts. illustrations. Copyright Katherine Kennedy
Adverb, a love story

A Table Of Contents. So You know what You Are Getting Into:

Just to get it out of the way, here is a definition of an adverb:

"a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there)."

When writers bemoan adverbs, they tend to mean the -ly words. Quickly, blandly, surprisingly, etc.

The big bad of the writing world is the adverb. I get it, I really do, but unlike some, I don't think adverbs are innately evil; instead, I think you can have too much of a good thing. And adverbs are such a good thing.

Novice Writers Keep Good Company

While writing my book—and reading others' books, I took to google more times than I can count with queries like "Are adverbs really that bad?" The answer was mostly "no, but…"

I like adverbs. I love adverbs. And I'm going to make my case in defense of them.

Beginner writers love adverbs; the internet sniffs at me—sniffly. Bandying words around like 'beginner' in a derogatory manner gets my hackles up. To check the theory, I've thrown a few of my favorite, established authors into programs like Hemmingway Editor and Grammarly so it could count up the adverbs and tell me if those esteemed authors are, in fact, 'beginners.' I'm salty about this, just in case it wasn't obvious.

  • Terry Pratchett uses 58 adverbs and should aim for 48 or fewer

  • Georgette Heyer uses a whopping 22, firmly planting her in the beginner category until she can whittle them down to a respectable 11

"Dialogue," She Said Tersely.

I've heard the argument that we don't need adverbs as dialogue tags, because the dialogue should convey all the meaning without the use of additional descriptors. The dialogue itself should convey whether the speaker is furious, loving, angry etc. instead of adding it as a "said lovingly." My sarcasm loving heart can't stand this idea. Just… no. I disagree so strongly that I am at a loss to describe why. Maybe it's just me, but my characters don't convey all their emotions through their words. Humans are a famously repressed bunch. We don't say half the things we are thinking out loud, and what we do say is layered with all sorts of extra meaning.

The communication of emotion is 7 percent spoken word, 38 percent tone of voice, and 55 percent body language. It's called the 7-38-55 rules. It's not a writing rule— or at least not one I've ever heard of, so I wouldn't recommend divvying up your witting into percentages to follow it. Still, if you want your writing to be realistic? Then it doesn't hurt to consider how the human folk behave. And we don't convey that much through dialogue; we do it through body language and tone. And if you don't want to dedicate half a page of description every time your character says something blandly, then adverbs are a great way to go.

To make my point, here are some basic examples:

  • "I hate you," she said angrily

  • "I hate you," she said sadly

  • "I hate you," she said happily

  • "I hate you," she said lovingly

Now, I am aware that I am cherry-picking my example sentence— ones that lend themselves to a lovely, quick adverb. There are plenty of times when an adverb isn't needed. Say two characters had been fighting, pulling each other hair, and raking nails across faces. Saying "angrily" isn't all that necessary. There I agree; adding in an adverb at the end of a bit of dialogue would be a waste of a good adverb. Seldom are scenes so obliging, and trying to twist them just to get rid of a few adverbs is where unrealistic characters thrive.

Adverb Tell And You Need To Show

I've read a few books of late where I can tell that the writer was trying to get rid of an adverb. Adverbs are telling, and your need to SHOW, or so screams the world! Many forums and blog posts suggest that instead of writing John ran quickly, a writer should instead write:

"John took a ragged breath, his heart pounding in his chest, the cold air burning his throat as he struggled to keep his desperate legs moving."

Listen, mate, I don't get paid per word. John is not my main character; he isn't even a proper side character. I don't need to tell my reader about his chest pains and throat problems. He ran; he did so quickly, indicating some form of urgency or at least impressive speed. That's all anyone needs to know about the situation. If I, the reader, can tell that you are trying to get rid of an adverb by writing around it, then you need that adverb back. Sometimes it's better to get to the point rather than demonstrate your writer's toolbox of avoiding them.

Are You Sure He Didn't Speed, Sprint or Bolt?

Why don't you say he sped down the hall, sprinted across the room, bolted through the shop? I'll tell you why, because I don't want to. If I wanted to say he sprinted, I would have said he sprinted; I want to say he ran quickly. It's quick (haha) and to the point. I don't want to bring up the hall yet, and I don't want to be forced to mention the shop. I just want to say he ran quickly. Leave me alone.

I stumbled across the example "He ran quickly towards the window" and "he dashed towards the window."

These are two different sentences. The words change its meaning and change the picture I get in my head. I can dash towards a window a couple of feet away, but I can't run towards it. To make it the same, you might need to change the sentence to "He dashed across the room towards the window."

Running implies distance, dashing can imply distance if worded right, but it can also imply a short space. I can dash from the couch to the coffee table. It does not, for example, mean run. A person can dash across the room and may never move into the definition of running.

Adverbs Are A Sign Of Weak Writing

That's not very nice. You're weak writing.

So What's The Answer?

Like all things, it's going to be a balancing act. That's what writing is when it comes down to it, a massive exercise in balancing. Twenty lines of dialogue with nothing but adverbs attached to each said and asked is going to be exhausting to read. I used adverbs at my leisure, got the words down on the page, and then revisit them during editing. I do like that there are all these wonderfully helpful programs online that will highlight all my adverbs for me, drawing my attention to them so I can make a decision about whether to keep them or not. It's helpful, but it's only a tool, and it can be a challenge not to fall into the trap of being dictated to by an algorithm.

If you don't like adverbs and don't want them, then carry on, my friend, but if you like them, use them. My rant (and this is a rant, I am aware) is not directed at the people who don't like adverbs. It's directed at the people who think NOBODY should like adverbs. Who call adverb users amateurs. Even more, my venom is directed at the people who are determined to force all authors and writers to sound identical. Who are boring up my reading time with the same style of writing, the same plot structures. Everything the same. I love reading, and they are ruining it for me.

A Begrudgingly Made Confession About Adverbs

I will confess (begrudgingly) that adverbs can be tricky to navigate. And I have read some books where I felt like I was being assaulted by the sheer, endless number of them. In one instance, I stopped reading because I couldn't take it; there were more adverbs than a healthy book could take. Just because something is hard doesn't mean it should be relegated to the bin. Taking on the wonderful world of adverbs can lead to better writing; in my opinion, adverbs are where a lot of humor and layered writing lies. Sometimes it's great to contrast angry dialogue with a dialogue tag that doesn't suit the words. A bland delivery (she said blandly) with an "I hate you." It's awesome and interesting. And who doesn't want to be awesomely interesting?

When I say "Fight Me" I do in fact mean it. Feel free to fight me in the comment section, or agree away, use all the adverbs in your arsenal.

This post has 40 adverbs, I should aim for 12 or fewer.


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