Is it just me? – Adverbs

mibreadingI don‘t know maybe it’s an allergy I have, or perhaps it’s more like a food intolerance i.e. when I see a liberal sprinkling of adverbs I become intolerant to them.

For example I began reading a science fiction book two weeks ago.  It started well, I liked the premise and the writing was good.  It soon became apparent that it was going to be a long book (even by scifi standards).  But hey, if it was good, so what?  However, by the time I got 20% in I was becoming irritated with it and by 30% I gave up.  Now there were several reasons behind this.  First was that the story seemed to be going round in circles with people repeating the same arguments and hence the story not getting very far.  Then there were some plot elements that didn’t really make sense to me.  Finally, I had issues with the writing.

As I mention, to start with the writing was OK.  However, as the book progressed it was as if the writer had got bored with editing it.  After about 10% -15% grammatical errors were creeping in along with some bizarre phraseology and choice of words.  There were also, what I presumed, were made up words (and yes I did try to look them up to make sure), not just mistakes.  The final straw though was, or so it seemed to me, the increasing and liberal use of the adverb – it had got to the point where my intolerance kicked in.  I did check back and there were signs early on, just not to the point where it provoked a reaction on my part.

So, at around 30%, after a few pages of where people “moaned quietly”, “moaned cautiously”, “muttered darkly”, “admitted finally”, “simply said”, “whispered cautiously”, “whispered softly” (?), “breathed deeply”, “admonished kindly”, “chuckled quietly”, “replied hotly”, “said calmly”, “agreed weakly” not to mention descriptive sentences in which as many as three adverbs might make an appearance, I gave up.

I would say at this point that you will find adverbs in my work.  Sometimes they creep in unnoticed.  When I’m revising I’m on the lookout.  They make me ask, am I just being lazy?  Could I express that in a better way?  Often the answer is yes in both cases.  And in the way I write that’s fine.  I tend to get the story down first and then worry the detail later.  So, by the end any surviving adverb has earned its place.  I’ve seen it, I know it’s there and it knows I know its there.  It has survived the question “would this sentence suffer if I removed it?”

elmore leonardNow, just so you know that this aversion is not some genetic disorder of mine, when I started writing I was pointed in the direction of a few texts on the subject, the contents of which have stuck with me.  One is Stephen King’s book on writing (excellent, can’t recommend it enough) and although I may be misquoting him it’s where the question “would this sentence suffer if I removed the adverb?” comes from.  King is very much “Beware The Adverb” believing their use is often an excuse for lazy writing.

Another influence is Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing” which I go back to every now and then to remind myself (you can find them on line if you don’t want to buy the short book).  Number 4 is “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said”.  He goes on “… he admonished gravely.  To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”  His point is the adverb distracts and interrupts rhythm.

So there you have it, my intolerance is out in the open and I ask again is it just me?

As always comments are welcome.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

11 thoughts on “Is it just me? – Adverbs”

  1. I can certainly see why you gave up on the book – adverbs in that quantity would have driven me to distraction.
    The more experience I gain as a writer, the less tolerant I’m finding myself of such poor construction. I do use adjectives every now and then, but avoid them unless I can’t find a suitable alternative. One of my final editing checks is to do a search for ‘ly’, which enables me to prune out the odd interloper.
    Several writers in the group I belong to (experienced, published short story writers) are not as fanatical about them, so we had a discussion and realised that it is a fairly modern writing rule – even 20 years ago they were far more acceptable,.
    Nowadays, most publishers and agents look on the use of adverbs as lazy writing. Best advice is to remove them (and the word they modify), and replace with a stronger word, or let the initial word stand on its own merits.
    Sometimes I wish I could go back and enjoy books just for their story, as I used to, regardless of the technical proficiency of the writing, but sadly, for me, those days are gone.

    1. I agree – these days I read with two minds 1) a reader who wants to enjoy and 2) the critic. Sometimes the critic wins and as with the book I mention I stop reading it. As I say in the blog you will find adverbs in my work they just have to earn their place.

    2. I do agree. I haven’t been really caught up in a new book for quite a long time. Perhaps I’ve been doing too much reviewing and beta reading. The interesting thing is that I can still wallow happily in my old, familiar books which I read and re-read.

      1. Me too. These days I really know when I’ve found a well written book, as they are the only ones I can lose myself in, and not feel I’m on the outlook for errors all the time. Rare, but much appreciated when I find them.

  2. It’s interesting that Elmore Leonard brings in the idea of rhythm. The flow of the narrative is one of the basic features of a person’s writing which appeals to other people. I’m not sure that we understand completely why this should be so. Apparently the reading response is still a pretty open field for research.
    Redundant adverbs are horrible (“whispered quietly”; “ran quickly”). But other adverbs which (as you say) must earn their place, can enrich the text (eg: “suggested amicably” – “amicably” is one of Dick Francis’s favourite adverbs).

    1. Thanks for the comments. I agree the rhythm part of writing is interesting. When it’s good you don’t notice it. I suppose its one of the reasons why we like poetry and good prose has that as well.

  3. Excellent point — is the sentence better with the adjective? Is it REALLY? If not, ditch it immediately! (Or vigorously, liberally, unselfconciously!) 😉 But sometimes, in fact, the perfect adverb brings the sentence into its own.

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