Adverbs – Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?
Posted on November 15, 2012
In a recent workshop, we started to discuss things to look for when we self-edit. The discussion came around to adverbs – those words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, making their placement almost anywhere in your sentences. Sometimes, the “-ly” form of adverbs gets demonized by readers, instructors, and editors alike. Whatever others think, you have to decide what to do with them in your own work. Do you go through your writing and take them all out, or do you leave them in?
If you’ve read Stephen King’s book On Writing, you know that he says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” As a respected writer, King’s advice has been ready by many. It’s good for getting fired up about putting proverbial pen to paper, and may even give some advice to keep in our back pockets. It is just one set of advice from one writer, but the comment about adverbs may have merit.
Adverbs are a necessary part of speech that we cannot avoid in our writing. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to refer to the sticky “-ly” form. When you are finished with your first draft, one of the things to do is to go through and see how often you use an “-ly” adverb to modify an action or a description. If you do just a basic scan and see lots of them sprinkled within your prose all together, you may want to consider doing some revising.
I’ll give an example of what I mean. Some of the most common places we (and I include myself in this when drafting) tend to place “-ly” adverbs are within dialogue tags. When one of my teenage characters, James, is trying to joke with the female protagonist, I wrote:
“Besides, I just meant that you should be taking off some clothes. It is springtime, you know,” he said lasciviously.
Is the exchange correct in terms of grammar? Yes. Could it stay as it is? Yes. Every writer can choose to leave his/her writing as it stands whenever revising if it’s correct. However, the question I ask myself is – is there a better way to convey in a more active way what I mean by “lasciviously”?
I know some people hate hearing “show, don’t tell” (to be written about in a future post), but when considering dialogue tags like the example, I think it’s a legitimate consideration. Consider the following revisions that all convey “lasciviously” in different ways:
1. “Besides, I just meant that you should be taking off some clothes. It is springtime, you know,” he said licking his lips and glancing at her breasts.
2. “Besides, I just meant that you should be taking off some clothes. It is springtime, you know,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.
3. “Besides, I just meant that you should be taking off some clothes. It is springtime, you know.” His wolfish grin broke into a genuine smile as he laughed it off.
All three do a better job of giving the reader a hint to what James is saying to the protagonist. One gives off a creepy vibe that matches the meaning to “lascivious”. The second one allows the reader to read in the meaning based on the rest of the context. The third takes out the tag aspect with the dialogue, but adds details that reveals more about the character than the original dialogue tag does.
You cannot write and take out all adverbs, nor should you. However, the consideration of “-ly” adverbs needs to be about when and how to use them as well as how often you may be using them. If you see them pervading your writing when self-editing, you can ask yourself if there’s a way to revise to convey the meaning of your chosen “-ly” adverb to add in better details that may reveal more or make your writing stronger.
I agree. You can’t avoid using adverbs completely. And taking out all adverbs doesn’t necessarily make your writing better. But. I do think that adverbs are especially evil in describing dialogue, like in your example. I think it was Elmore Leonard that said if you need to use an adverb to describe how a character said something, you aren’t doing your job right.
You really can’t avoid them. But for some people, they populate a lot of the page. It’s just one thing to check (out of the oh-so-many).