Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Misused Advice: Eliminate Adverbs

B. C. Marine, Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Every piece of advice that we talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. Today’s advice to eliminate adverbs is no different. It’s probably the prime example of why it’s important to learn the reasons behind “The Rules” of writing before implementing them.

The Problems

Ironically, bending over backward to delete every adverb can sometimes create one of the exact problems it was meant to solve! How, you ask? Let’s start with the reason behind the advice. Adverbs are blamed for destroying two things: brevity and clarity.
In today’s insta-everything world, brevity is more important than ever. Novels aren’t paid for by the word, and though short stories sometimes are, the storytelling space is so small that each word must hold its weight. In fact, extra words cost money, either in page counts for printing or in file delivery costs for ebook distribution. Even if you or your publisher don’t care about pricing, readers may put your story down if you take longer than needed to tell it.
Adverbs are an easy scapegoat for this since, by their nature, they tack onto verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Unlike subjects, objects, or verbs, adverbs aren’t essential sentence components, so when word counts need reduction, they’re the first in line for deletion.
Even those not sold on the merits of brevity can appreciate the advantages of clarity. This is usually where you hear writers talk about using a strong verb instead of propping up a weak verb with an adverb. For example, if you’re describing an action scene, which of these is the most visceral?
  1. He fled.
  2. He fled quickly.
  3. He bolted.
Option three paints the clearest picture in your mind, doesn’t it? It gives us more than the weak verb, with or without the adverb to bolster it.

The Other Side

At this point, many sources will wipe their hands together and declare their advice on adverbs finished. Haven’t we proven that they’re useless at best?
Not at all!
If that were truly the case, why would adverbs exist? As a part of language, they must serve a purpose, as evidenced by how things can go wrong when authors try too hard to avoid them.
The Scenic Route
We’ve all done it. You’re heading somewhere and take what you think will be a great shortcut, only to discover that you’ve chosen the scenic route. Adverb avoidance can do the same thing. Let’s use another example:
  1. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she whispered loudly.
  2. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she said in a stage whisper.
  3. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she said in a loud whisper.
  4. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she whispered, knowing that everyone could hear her.
Examples two through three get rid of the adverb “loudly” but end up longer than the original. If brevity is the point, eliminating the adverb this way misses it completely. It trades the one offending word ending in “-ly” for a whole adverbial phrase. Unless you’re trying to satisfy an English teacher who has banned or limited your use of “-ly” adverbs, there’s no good reason to avoid example one.
Language Limitations
You might be thinking, Okay, smartypants, just take out the adverb entirely! That can be easier said than done. Let’s use the same example again:
  1. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she whispered.
  2. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” she whispered loudly.
These two sentences do not mean the same thing. Example one is a normal whisper, likely meant only for the person she’s directly next to; if she’s overhead, it’s unintentionally so. Example two is a stage whisper, used for joking or sarcasm and meant to be heard by the person she’s talking about. That one little adverb conveys all that information.
I could try to use a stronger verb if it weren’t for one teeny tiny little problem… It doesn’t exist in English. Sure, we have the concept of “stage whisper,” but that’s a noun, not a verb, and if you recall, the term was used in scenic route example number two. There are only so many verbs in the English language, and the way to supplement what’s missing is through adverbs.

Are Adverbs Good or Bad?

Neither and both. The difference between a good adverb and a bad one is like the difference between a garden plant and a weed. In your lawn, buttercups are a weed, but in a dedicated patch, they’re a lovely flower. Treat your adverbs the same way; aim for brevity and clarity, and let that dictate their usage.

Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Never Use a Prologue.

And join us next week for an interview with author Judy Lynn, to talk about her upcoming novel, Chieftess of Acora.

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