adverbs, again

I had a piece critiqued for the first time by the writer’s meetup that I attend. Generally, the feedback was good–validated some things for myself (like I can actually write something that someone else enjoys) and provided a couple of useful things to work on in rewrites.

Also though.

Someone handed me a print out with line edits that consisted primarily of their circling or underlining the adverbs I used. Not all the adverbs, but all the -ly words. With the exhortation to “watch the adverbs.”

I’m trying to take this particular critique in the most generous way possible: Sometimes I overuse adverbs, and it is a good reminder for me to be more deliberate in how I choose to deploy them.

But then I think about the fact that all the -ly words (and no other adverbs) were circled indiscriminately, and I become incandescent with rage.

So you get another adverb rant.

I’m sorry, but the rule “only bad writers use adverbs” is a TERRIBLE THING to tell (any, but particularly new) writers and is JUST SO WRONG. (Also, just don’t “Only bad writers…” anybody in general. It’s rude and mean.) The adverb ban is one of those common knowledge “laws of writing” that people espouse without stopping to think about why. Just like all of those other absurdly prescriptivist “rules” that people have about writing. (There are rules and then there are “rules.”)

(Also, actually, I’m not sorry.)


Sure, adverbs can be overused (easily, in fact). But so can adjectives. Or other parts of speech. Or grammatical quirks/styles like incomplete clauses. Why must the adverb be so maligned? Sometimes you need them. They modify other parts of speech (mostly verbs), and they do this because there are occasions when those parts of speech need modifying. Sometimes there isn’t a more precise word. Sometimes there is, but you’re using the adverb for a specific effect. Adverbs can change the meaning of the sentence you are writing.

And sure, sometimes you are BEING REDUNDANT (she shouted loudly) and using them unnecessarily. And if that’s the case, release those poor adverbs into the ether and remove them from your writing.

Here’s a quote that sums up why it makes me so mad:

It’s that adverbs are no guiltier than any other part of speech. A noun can be nonsense. A verb can be vague. A preposition can be improper. An adjective can be antiquated. A conjunction can be confusing. Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn’t mean they’re evil. Some—those that help the current move “ceaselessly” at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go “boldly”—are downright great.

– Lily Rothman, “Why I Am Proudly, Strongly, and Happily in Favor of Adverbs,” The Atlantic, Dec. 1, 2011

Being careful and deliberate with using the tools you have in your toolbox is NOT the same thing as outright banning one of the tools for no reason other than “lots of people don’t know how to use this correctly and also once someone told me don’t.”

The only way to get better at using a tool is to gain more experience with it. Read, and pay attention to how your favorite authors use adverbs, to why they do it. Experiment with them, see where they work in your writing and where they don’t. Be conscious and choosy when using them, just like you would with any of the other words you are using.

I kind of hope that I don’t have to rant about adverbs anymore, but I’m sure it’ll come up again.