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.

writing recap 2018: w40

Week one of the flash fiction inktober thing down!

I’ve found this week very productive, despite the tempting distraction that is a brand new copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and an egregiously huge TV. Building in the flash fiction bit to my morning has allowed me to feel more playful and experimental in my writing again, which was something I had been missing during my more recent Large Project slog.

Some days were certainly easier than others, but each day brought with it a new little idea. Most of them I was happy to just visit the once, but there are a couple in there that I want to polish and hoard and maybe expand.

Since each piece is so short, it’s given me an opportunity to look at the finished first drafts and pick out the problems I have a tendency to repeat — it’s much more obvious when you have several drafts to look at than when you are in the midst of the one big one. I’ve gotten some perspective too on what made a couple of my other larger projects not work so well. So now, I can be a little more deliberate in how I piece things together, and I can direct my attention more consciously to my weak points.

All in all, educational so far. I do need to come up with a plan for what I’m going to do with all these first drafts at the end of the month though…

And now, a rant.

For some reason, I’ve seen an excess of articles this past week once again espousing writing “rules” in that particularly prescriptive hard-and-fast tone of voice that I find grating. This week I’ve seen a confluence of attacks, once again, on adverbs. And sometimes even adjectives.

On the one hand, I get it. All things are now STATED with AUTHORITY because qualifiers make you weak. Even though dealing in absolutes obliterates all nuance (that every aspect of everything has). That includes the unnecessarily harsh prohibition against using adverbs. (Use even one, and — egads! — you will become a Bad Writer™!)

And again, I get it. Mostly, when this rule is repetitively bandied about, it’s frequently about annoyingly using adverbs excessively and gratuitously. I get it.

But it’s said in this way, this looking-down-my-nose-at-your-ly-suffix way that makes me want to… I don’t know, glare at a houseplant (Sorry, houseplant. It’s not your fault.).

When it comes down to it, the writers that I most admire and wish to emulate are not afraid of or averse to using adjectives and adverbs. Those things are, as with any of the other aspects of language, merely tools. The writing that I like uses these tools and wields them skillfully and with great intention.

Here is Ursula K. Le Guin’s more moderate perspective on adjectives and adverbs:

Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and nourishing. They add color, life, immediacy. They cause obesity in prose only when used lazily or overused.

I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

And maybe, this more measured take on it is what people mean. But it’s not what they say.

(Incidentally, if you haven’t read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend it. It is a small, powerful book that can be revisited over and over again.)