Unapologetically Considering the Use of Adverbs

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve found a happy home in two different critique communities. In both, I’ve found people with great advice, and those with different perspectives than my own — exactly what I went out searching for. But now that I’m subjecting my writing to the critical eyes of many other writers, I’ve been bombarded with the “rules” that I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong — I haven’t been writing in the wild west, flagrantly ignoring common rules of grammar and style. But I haven’t been self-editing too heavily while writing the first draft of any of my WIPs.

One of the rules that has been brought up more than once now, and which is a topic of great debate in the forums, is this: don’t use adverbs. This must be a good rule since everyone repeats it. After all, we all know that Stephen King dislikes adverbs above all other parts of speech, saying that the road to hell is paved with them. Or something like that.

And while I agree that using them continually, repeatedly and carelessly (see how I did that there?) can signal a writer unwilling to consider how to make their verbs strong enough to stand alone, I also feel that it’s unfair to cast aside one part of speech altogether. Adverbs, surely, serve a purpose.

Since being reminded of this “rule,” I’ve started reading with an eye toward evaluating how much use these pariahs get in the books that I enjoy. They’re not absent. In fact, they appear frequently in some of the books I like very much. Maybe my tastes are very un-literary. This has led me to believe that we, as writers, should be very careful with these types of “rules,” especially when critiquing the work of others. It is easy to stand with a crowd of self-professed literary types and spout dogma as if it was your own original thought. It is harder, perhaps, to step away from the crowd and see where a writer might be justified in breaking a rule to the benefit of their work.

Adverbs may not be the end all be all of the literary world, but I do believe they have a place there. If you are acting as a critic, be a thoughtful critic. Don’t page through someone’s work on the lookout for broken rules. Take a piece as a whole and try to see what the writer is doing. Give your fellow writers some credit for knowing the same rules you do, and see if they’re using their adverbs thoughtfully. (see how I did that again? I’m lazy. Willfully, stubbornly, admittedly lazy.)

Check out these other writers who defend the lowly adverb. (ha!)

Jan Fields, ICL Web Editor

Lilly Rothman at the Atlantic

Penny, of the Quirky Ladies


5 thoughts on “Unapologetically Considering the Use of Adverbs

  1. Adverbs have a place in writing. I love them, but agree that they shouldn’t be used haphazardly. I use them, but I’m well aware I’m not writing in the genre of literary. Literary novels are like Tess of the D’URberville.

    I don’t think that there is anything that can be really considered a universal “rule” in writing. Because what’s an unbreakable rule to one great writer, can be broken by another amazing writer.

    • Agreed. Art is about breaking rules, isn’t it? But knowing the rules is always a good foundation. You can’t choose to break them if you aren’t aware of them in the first place, I suppose.

  2. I’ve been learning a lot about rules: no adverbs, no adjectives, show don’t tell, never use exclamation points, etc. The harping on these is very heavy from the literary types. Then I see some spectacularly successful authors who violate them all in every paragraph. To paraphrase a politician, It’s the story, stupid! LOL. Most readers don’t care if you aren’t an elegant craftsman like Hemingway. They want a good story told in an entertaining fashion.

    Of course, I work on improving my writing, and being aware of the rules when I’m editing/revising helps a lot. But sometimes an extra descriptor helps streamline things rather than take two paragraphs to “show” the action.

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