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Robert's Rules of Writing #30: Pile It On

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

So how do you feel about adverbs?

If you don't recall your basic grammar or have forgotten your Schoolhouse Rock, an adverb is a word that modifies a verb. Sometimes it modifies an adjective. Generally, adverbs end in "-ly," such as in the word "generally." However, some adverbs are very different, such as "very," and don't end in "-ly."

And a lot of writers, editors, and readers supposedly (hey, there's one!) hate them. In fact, many books on writing vilify the adverb. The books tells us that adverbs are weak, that a writer who adds an adverb to a verb is simply not using the correct verb in the first place. If I write, "He walked quickly," perhaps it would be better instead to write, "He ran." And so on.

The adverb gets savaged the most in what are called Tom Swifties. You may recall reading about these as a kid. Supposedly, the Tom Swift books featured sentences in which a punning adverb modified Tom's dialogue, like in the following example:

"The lights have gone out," Tom said darkly.

(If you want more examples, there are plenty here and here.)

So writers of dialogue get it from both sides: not only are we told only to use the word "said" (as we'll discuss in rule #32), but we're not even allowed to modify the word "said" with an adverb!

The odd thing, though, is how often I see adverbs attacked as a sign of bad writing, and then the adverbs flow freely from writers who are considered good.

Masello seems to have noticed this as well. As you may have guessed from this rule, he feels that an adverb has its uses, that it can make a verb clearer. And I tend to agree with him. As long as one uses adverbs judiciously (there's another one!), I see no problem with it. The key is to understand when it's proper to use an adverb. Here are my suggestions:

1. An adverb is useful when there is no appropriate other verb to use in place of the one you've already got.

2. An adverb is useful when the action described is normally thought of as being performed in one manner, and the character is doing it differently.

But don't go overboard. And if you're worried that your prose is overloaded with adverbs, run a search on the letters "ly" when you finish a story. It'll give you once more chance to see those adverbs for yourself, and decide what to so with them.

He advised advisedly.

Comments

>>"The lights have gone out," Tom said darkly.<<

"Randomly coming up with these in conversation is one of Laurie's and my favorite ways to have silly fun," Danny said gamely.
"This flower arrangement is missing something," Tom said lackadaisically.

This is, hands down, my favorite Tom Swifty.
"I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said crestfallenly.
I never had much of a problem with adverbs - reading or writing them - except after I read a writing book that railed against them. Then I noticed them and I stopped using them so much, but I doubt I'll ever stop with them entirely.

But I can see where they fail the writer. I recently read a story where the writer used the word "grinningly" and that's just wrong.
i like stephen king's quote, which i copied onto a post-it and stuck to my "writing quote tree" that adorns my desk. it simply states:

"the adverb is not your friend."

(which in On Writing he went on to describe just the thing that Masello does...use sparingly, when you must, but please OH please not as a dialogue-modifier.)

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