A Case for Adverbs

A Case for Adverbs
“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft)

Writing advice is tricky business. Of course, a writer who is successful, especially one who has wide acclaim, will have insight into how to craft a good tale or beautiful paragraph. It’s immature—and a bit flippant—to write them off entirely (pun intended). But the longer you dip your toes into the realm of writing, the more you’ll realize that certain subjects have conflicting advice from the pros. Prose style is, perhaps, the most varied and heated of these cases, and adverbs is perhaps the most famous of them.

My stance on adverbs should be obvious from the title of this post. I’m not anti-adverb as many writers (famous or not) are. And of course, the title also gives away that I’m not just stating my opinion but trying to persuade others to see my perspective. So, I want to start off by affirming a bit of common advice: when you’re a new writer, avoid using most adverbs. Avoiding adverbs, as well as avoiding lots of adjectives, hones your ability to pick strong nouns and verbs, and since nouns and verbs are the skeleton and muscle of any sentence, that’s a skill you want to hone to pointed accuracy.

The argument can be made that such advice is harsh and limiting. At one point, I thought so too! I remember hating that advice when I was a teenager and just starting out on my “serious” writing journey—I hated almost all of the advice and guidelines I saw, like short story contests with 2,000 word limits, or a writing curriculum that made you write your novel in first-person perspective. But all of those rules (whether specific to an instance, like the contest word limit, or broad advice floating around the internet) are nuances of a very good piece of advice: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” (Pablo Picasso). A strong grasp on story basics is the same as a strong grasp on basic grammar, or color theory, or multiplication and division—you can’t move on to the complexities of an art or field or study if you don’t understand its underpinnings.

But that is where I think strict adherence to the “adverb rule” ought to stay: in the realm of beginner’s advice. A writer who understands solid story structure and compelling prose needs to branch out beyond them to hone their own voice, add their own flare, or indulge a little in their own preferences and favorite tropes. And doing that means you are allowed to, and in fact should, break some writing rules—but skillfully. There is a massive difference between a new writer throwing adverbs atop weak sentences, and a seasoned writer picking just the right adverb to enhance a sentence. Most people can tell the difference, too—it’s subtle and intuitive but practically impossible to fake.

Still, many people—modern writers especially—argue that adverbs are still unnecessary, perhaps detrimental, even for seasoned writers. They weaken prose, distract readers, and muddle clarity. But I have two objections to that argument.

First, adverbs are part of language for a reason. They’re very similar to adjectives in their function, and adjectives aren’t forbidden in writing circles. Why, then, should adverbs be shunned? Yes, it’s easy to go overboard with them or misuse them, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them entirely; they may be “unnecessary,” like semicolons, but they do have a purpose and can be excellent when they fulfill it well. Adverbs add nuance, emphasis, contrast, style, and, yes, clarity to writing. Here’s a simple example: compare “this rule can’t be applied” and “this rule can’t be applied universally.” The addition of “universally” is vital to proper understanding—the adverb’s omission changes the fundamental meaning. The same can be said for time-related adverbs like “always,” “often,” “sometimes,” etc. In a more stylistic example, compare “she whispered” and “she said softly.” People can argue that “whispered” and “said softly” mean the same thing, but a) they are synonyms that have different denotations and connotations, and b) they just read differently. One might choose to use “said softly” not just because of its denotation and connotation but because it makes their overall writing style take on a different mood. Additionally, adverbs can concisely show contrasting emotions. It can be agreed that “smiled happily” is redundant (don’t use that), but is “smiled sadly”? Are “smiled menacingly” or “smiled sheepishly” redundant, too? No, none of them are, because the adverbs contrast against the generally positive connotation that “smiled” has. You can, of course, argue that you should use a better, non-adverb description to show that the smile is sad, but “smiled sadly” is the simplest way to explain the emotion those words capture. It may be better to opt for the adverbial description in the middle of important dialogue in order to keep the focus on the speech, rather than the dialogue tags.

This leads me to my second point: people’s tolerance for adverbs comes down to personal style preferences—which means it’s not innately wrong to avoid their use, or innately wrong to use them a lot. Here’s what I mean. Author’s voice and a book’s individual narration style are major parts of what makes a story a unique, full-bodied experience. The prose style we choose (point of view, tense perspective shifts, length of sentences and paragraphs, complex vs. simple word choices) all influence the mood of the piece. In that sense, if a person uses adverbs—perhaps many of them!—to mimic the style of their favorite classics, to add humor, or to give the impression of floweriness or talkativeness on purpose, then they’re actively using language to further their artistic vision. It’s no different than a person actively choosing to write sparse, simple sentences and present-tense to convey a sense of urgency or modernity. We each have a different writing voice, and each story has its own mood that needs to be developed through our use of language. Within the realm of skillful and clear prose, adverbs have as much of a place as compound-complex sentences, semicolons, fragments, contractions, commas, strings of adjectives, or the omission of some or all of those techniques.

To put it simply, adverbs are a part of language for a reason, and the purposeful, skillful use of them can add to writing rather than take away from it, if an author so chooses to use them. Skillful is the key word, of course, but isn’t that true for any part of writing?

To put it metaphorically, if your story is best told on a pristine lawn without a dandelion in sight, then by all means, keep it spotless. But if you’re like me, and you like patches of wildflowers and dandelions dotting the greenery of your world, let them thrive. Dandelions aren’t weeds, after all—they’re both flowers and food, for those who take the time to look closely.

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