Are Adverbs Evil?

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Are Adverbs Evil?

Mar 25, 2023, 12:16 pm

So I ran into someone recently who believed that good writing involved avoiding adverbs, and was astounded when some of the suggestions his copy editor made involved inserting adverbs. He was wondering if he should look for a new copy-editor, or not.

Where do you all stand on this issue?

Editado: Mar 25, 2023, 12:29 pm

In his book On Writing, Stephen King preaches the eradication of adverbs with some (unspecified) extreme case exceptions. He says he eliminates them almost entirely when editing, on a kind of seek-and-destroy mission. The basis for this argument is that an adverb is a "helper" for the verb, and if you need a helper then you've selected a poor/weak verb. If you feel that adverb absolutely needs to be there, reconsider the verb rather than saving the adverb. I think he was also concerned about wordiness and pacing.

That said, I've become more conscious of adverbs since and I find them everywhere, in all kinds of novels, every genre. What works for Stephen King is not, apparently, what many other authors hold themselves to. And it doesn't seem to spoil the story overmuch. Maybe it is only a question of voice and style.

Personally I don't like the "-ly" adverbs and can be distracted or annoyed by them. "He ran quickly forward" should be "He dashed forward"; "They nervously fidgeted" will suffice as "They fidgeted"; etc.

Re your friend, genre may be a factor. I think adverbs are more commonly found in young adult fiction, for example.

Mar 25, 2023, 1:50 pm

Avoiding adverbs leads to a "lean" and efficient style. If that's what you want.

Including them slows the prose, making it linger over details and qualities of the action--except for readers who have been trained to react to them with aversion!

Mar 25, 2023, 2:58 pm

Good question! Just after I'd finished the first draft of my first book I read something somewhere which said writers should only use them very sparingly so I cancelled dozens....I think it probably improved the book. But I use them a lot in a blog I write too and I wouldn't cancel them from there. It's nice to read I can keep some ....

Mar 26, 2023, 7:11 am

My favourite writing motto is "Let the readers do some work." So I view adverbs as a manifestation of "telling" rather than "showing." They tell the reader *how* to interpret whatever they're modifying. Sometimes that's all you need (establishing a small thing) before moving on. Other times, they work against reader engagement. I guess if your PoV character is misinterpreting something, you could use an adverb as a clue to an unreliable narrator. Though in that case I'd probably have my PoV character explicitly think their misinterpretation.

Mar 26, 2023, 7:45 am

Attempt to eliminate adverbs as much as possible has been writing advice I've gotten for over 30 years. Check the flow of the sentence, see if it can be written differently. Sometimes, you can't help but put a few adverbs in, like how some people speak, but it is always suggested that lean, tight prose has very few adverbs.

Mar 26, 2023, 7:09 pm

It's not something I think about much. If they improve the flow, 'sound' or pacing of a sentence or passage, they're fine.

Mar 27, 2023, 7:00 am

I fell into a weird trap, though, whereby I was so keen to avoid adverbs that I overloaded the prose with my characters' physical gestures. Every time someone said anything, they also "rubbed their chin" or "chewed their lip" or "folded their arms and huffed." It got a bit absurd. The dialogue can usually speak for itself - readers are well attuned to mood and understand the emotional significance of dialogue without too much help.

Mar 28, 2023, 10:54 am

>2 Cecrow: "In his book On Writing, Stephen King preaches the eradication of adverbs with some (unspecified) extreme case exceptions."
According to some source online (so trustworthy!) actual analysis of Steven King's writing turns up, on average, more than a hundred adverbs per 10K words. Which is less than Rowlings, but a great deal more than, say Hemmingway.

Anyone got a Steven King novel on hand to check up on this one?

Mar 28, 2023, 11:06 am

>5 MHThaung: "I guess if your PoV character is misinterpreting something, you could use an adverb as a clue to an unreliable narrator."

I sort of do this in Cantata in Coral and Ivory. The narrator is lying, but he wants his audience to see through the lies, so he gives the audience the picture of what really happened, and then he tacks on an erroneous adverb so that nobody can claim he said something he shouldn't have.

But usually I don't even think about adverbs. I'm not sure how often I use them, when I'm not playing games with them.

(I need to find a copy of the analysis software my anonymous internet source was using on Steven King and use it on myself.)

Mar 28, 2023, 11:19 am

>6 gilroy:

I stopped believing that lean, tight prose was an inherently good thing when I read a book by a friend whose prose was so lean and tight that my reading speed went down to about a third my usual pace. The prose felt bumpy and awkward, and it was a conscious effort to parse. But by golly there wasn't a single wasted word! Hoorah.

If he had doubled the words used it probably would have been a pleasanter and faster read. (Not as much "in character" for his first person narrator though. Other than "fewer words != better writing," my takeaway was that I probably didn't want to write an entire book from the first person pov of a strong silent type.) :)

Mar 28, 2023, 11:31 am

>11 LShelby: That would be more the fault of the writing style than the tight prose. One can have tight, lean prose and have smooth writing.
One can also have bloated prose and smooth writing.

It's a big balance of style and substance over verbosity.

Editado: Mar 29, 2023, 9:27 am

>12 gilroy:, sounds right. You can't eliminate adverbs entirely (see ... I just used one, and I think it adds clarity.) But they are probably the part of the sentence that can most easily be eliminated without losing what the sentence means when you're trying to reduce word count, and for the "-ly" variety this is especially true. But even Stephen King admitted he didn't remove them 100%. He kept the "right ones", and that's where style and substance, the writer's skill, comes into play; judging which ones those are.

If there's internet statistics on frequency of adverb occurrence for various authors, I was curious how Hemingway fares. He was the master of lean prose. I found this:

Abr 10, 2023, 5:52 pm

>13 Cecrow:
Interesting article.

Apparently only 'ly' adverbs are evil. Hemingway demonstrates this, so it must be true. >;D

I think there is no such thing as a one true style, and I see no reason why I would want to write like Hemingway, rather than, say Wodehouse.

But I do think that the words we use should be achieving the effect that we want to achieve, and not some other effect entirely.

I confess that I can't think of many situations where "walked quickly" or "walked slowly" is more effective than a single verb that means the same thing...
... but I can come up with a few.

Maybe you are setting up a comparison of various walking styles, and the repetition of the verb drives home the idea of "they are all walking, but oh how differently they do so." Or, similarly, you are describing the progression of a person transitioning between walking styles, and once again are using repetition for effect. Or maybe the sounds or rhythm of the words used are important. Or maybe it came up in dialog, or is part of a first person narrative, and is correct for the speaking style of that character.


Just for fun I checked a couple of the mss I had readily available. In one I used "walked" 15 times, each time in association with a preposition "walked behind", "wallked to", "walked between", walked away", etc.. In the other somewhat longer book, I used "walked" 30 times, but eight of those were in a cluster using deliberate repetition. ("I walked. I walked and walked and..." etc.) I used "walked lazily" once and "walked as calmly and composedly as I could" once. Mostly I used "walked" as I had in the other book, with prepositions.

"Walked lazily" couldn't be just "strolled" because she was putting on an act, if I used "strolled" I would have to qualify it. So it was actually a similar situation to "walked as calmly and composedly as I could" where the fact that she was not actually calm needed to be acknowledged.

Abr 10, 2023, 10:17 pm

Back in the days when computer memory was a crosshatch of wires with magnets at each intersection, but after vacuum tubes were phased out, I got a job as a computer operator trainee at a place where it was required that the FBI would handle your background check. Nine months later, they had me in tech support because I figured out why odd resource usage was being reported for a particular after-hours batch program. Go figure.
I wrote a program in my spare time -- mind you, I had never even seen a computer prior to my interview -- and taught myself four different programming languages, but they sent me to a class to learn COBOL (1974 standards). Well, I like to write, so it was more than easy for me. Aside: Years later, I worked with the instructor at a different job. End-aside. So, there was a command, a construct, called GoTo which was handy to use, and probably the most dangerous command ever created -- for the same reason. If conditions weren't exactly right, you may as well just pull the plug on the computer.
With that in mind, the instructor taught a more structured form of programming style. There was the GoTo-ful camp and the GoTo-less camp; either always use it or never use it. The trend was leaning toward the latter, and in fact, when I retired from computer work (early 2000s), GoTo was entirely removed from COBOL. Regardless, back then, the instructor's philosophy was less-GoTo; try to avoid it, and use it sparingly if you have to at all.

I could give you a good example, but I've already wasted way too much of your valuable time.

For the past almost twenty years, I've been asked to edit a few dozen manuscripts for publication, in addition to running a writing group for about eight years. We met twice every week, with at least one meeting solely for critique.
Personally, I like adverbs. Professionally, I use a less-Adverb approach. Minimal use, and probably in dialog only. The omniscient narrator should always speak with correct grammar and usage, so I'd kill the adverbs. If the narrator is actually a character in the story (even a non-participating character,) then it all kind of depends a lot of factors. Maybe the narrator speaks a pidgin form of English.

Abr 17, 2023, 2:03 pm

I'm not sure I'm buying into this metaphor.

Adverbs don't derail the train of thought or flow of logic.*

Goto statements can derail all sorts of things.

For the record, I never learned COBOL, I went straight from basic to C. Nowadays its all PHP and javascript for me. (My son ALSO works for a place who needs an FBI check, BTW -- he's his team's "Python Guru"). But I think to adverb or not to adverb is more like a PHP versus javascript question. Is it better to have the work done by the server or to push it to the user's machine? Can the main verb carry the load, or is there a reason why using an auxiliary would work better in this instance?

*Okay, in Cantata in Coral and Ivory the adverbs really do sometimes do a bit of thought derailing. But I was doing it on purpose!