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Writing Wednesday: Adverbs & Other Bogeymen Exposed

September 21, 2011

There was some group of writers calling themselves “hookers” (Lord only knows why) who kept posting to my Twitter feed twelve times a day with the same lousy thing.  One of their articles, which out of principle I didn’t read, was about how much they hated adverbs.

Some people on their blogs like to get out their pitchforks and torches and go after the poor adverb.  Why?  Because it’s one of the Big Myths agents/publishers sell.  “Eliminate your adverbs!” they scream at writing conferences and on their blogs.  “Adverbs are tools of the Devil!”  Someone’s probably tried to have an exorcism for adverbs by now.

But when you actually read novels, you see the Big Myth for just that, a myth.  Adverbs are everywhere!  When I read “Dracula,” there were adverbs.  When I read “Life of Pi” which won the Man Booker Prize, there were adverbs.  Go ahead and open any book and you’ll find adverbs.

So, yeah, adverbs ain’t so evil after all.

The point isn’t only that agents and editors are huge hypocrites when it comes to the “rules;” the point is also that people don’t really care about adverbs and other horrors agents/editors like to go on about.  I mean, did you just cringe or pull out your hair when I used the word “really”?  If so, really?  Really?  Come on!

Chances are you didn’t because you don’t really care about adverbs.  Not even the dumb ones used in dialog tags.  As a writer you might be more sensitive to it, but go find some non-writer friends and asked them what they thought of the adverbs.  First they’d probably ask, “What the hell is an adverb?”  After you explain it, they’d probably just shrug.

Case in point was when I read “The Way Life Should Be” by Terry Shaw a couple months ago.  I bought the book because it won the first (and possibly only) Gather writing competition.  It was only $3.49 at Bargain Books, so what the hell.

Now, do you suppose there were adverbs in this prize-winning book?  Of course there were!  There were also one-dimensional characters, “head-hopping” during scenes, and a plain vanilla plot ripped straight out of “Murder She Wrote.”  Did that stop it from winning the contest and thus publication?  Of course not!

Out of hundreds or thousands of applicants it prevailed.  Now maybe it was because the author had a lot of “friends” to stuff the ballot box or maybe it’s because your average reader is not your average writer and thus hasn’t had his/her head stuffed with adverb bias and all the other supposed “sins” that agents/editors go on about.  Obviously I’m going with the latter explanation.  People just want an entertaining story.  It doesn’t have to be unique or fresh or adverb-free.  It just has to be interesting enough to keep them engrossed for a few hours between reruns of “Two and a Half Men.”

Not that you want to put adverbs every other word–that would be really really really really dumb–but don’t sweat it if you haven’t eliminated every single one.  Chances are no one’s really going to care.

I mean really, did my flagrant use of adverbs deter your enjoyment of this post?  If so, then you need help.

Friday:  Why good things DON’T come in small packages for sequels…

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9 Comments
  1. I agree. I’ve mentioned this here-and-there and on-and-off. The anti-adverb thing is dumb. I mean, they have writing exercises in schools where the kids are told to go back and add in adverbs to make the story, what?, more INTERESTING. And they should, too.

  2. I agree. I’m tired of this “adverbs are evil” mantra. In the hands of the talented, adverbs are a very useful part of the writer’s toolkit.

    Plus… I like them. All of my favourite books are littered with them. LITTERED.

    Everything we have been fed about adverbs is WRONG!

  3. Whenever you obligate someone to read your book be them agent, fellow writer, or just friend… the book is no longer a thing of pleasure…it is a waste of time. Therefore, the person being thus obligated puts pressure on the writer. “You need to hook me in the first sentence. Don’t include any adverbs, have a distinctive first-person voice…” and the list goes on-and-on. People swallow this crap like candy, not realizing that the person who is giving it really didn’t want to read their stuff anyway. They actually hated that they got asked to do so and have approached the manuscript with anything BUT an open mind. That’s why there is such a gulf between obligated reader and actual reader. The “obligation” takes all the fun out of it and makes it all business. Out comes the red pen and they follow everything that has been shoveled to them since that first day in English lit.

    • I largely agree with that. The agent or editor doesn’t look at your manuscript like an ordinary reader does because to them it’s a product and not an entertainment. Which is probably why being the slush pile reader is about as much fun as any of those “Dirty Jobs” on that TV show.

  4. I’ll just say that adverbs are awesome, and because of their awesomeness they tend to get overused. A lot. But it’s a beginning writer sort of thing probably. I think the reason folks started on this anti-adverb freight train is because they’ve read unpublished manuscripts that are long lists of adverbs with the occasional verb to get things started. I know I have, and all I could say is to chill out on the adverbs, it’s too much. But it’s not an all or nothing thing, it’s about using them where they belong – and I believe some folks think throwing adverbs at a manuscript is a fix all.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is all that talk about losing all your adverbs isn’t really aimed at someone who knows what they’re doing. You can’t apply that advice to your stuff. It’ll just frustrate you.

    • I always think part of it is agents need to say SOMETHING in their blogs and at conferences, so things like adverbs or passive sentences are easy things. Also, maybe Stephen King mentioned something about adverbs in “On Writing” and everyone just started bandying it around.

  5. I remember that Gather contest; it’s why I joined Gather (and then I didn’t have my book finished in time to enter it.) Not surprised to hear the winner didn’t do all that well, although the idea of publishing a book on an American-Idol-model isn’t a bad idea.

    I think you’ve hit on the rules question pretty well: slush readers hate reading them, and people need to sound like experts when they talk about writing, because, really, there’s NO rules for writing. If you read Vonnegut, his writing is completely unlike Steinbeck’s or Irving’s or Heinlein’s, etc — so the real lesson is just “Have a good story, and tell it well enough that your readers don’t get annoyed.”

    Rogue: You should, though, comment on whether writing is HELL, as Nicholas Sparks says in the latest Newsweek issue about how terrible it is when he can’t finish a book. I’d like to hear from real writers about that.

    • Newsweek is interviewing Sparks now? Wow, now I’m really glad I canceled my subscription 11 years ago.

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