Saturday, January 30, 2010

Add Verbs--Skip the Adverbs: How Not to “Quickly” Ruin Your Writing

"The road to Hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir to the Craft


I love cooking in the saucepan/skillet. One of my favorite recipes, for the record, is Sausage-Pepper-and-Onions. For flavor, I usually add some garlic powder to the sizzling peppers. Mmmmm. Not too much, though, just a little is perfect. Too much will ruin it, a little will give it some zest. The same is true when using it in lasagna, you know.

In any case, today I'm going to talk about something that acts the same way to your writing, which is not a new subject by any means--adverbs.

A noun is a thing, a verb is an action, an adjective is a describer and an adverb... is a less pretty describer. Simple, right? The difference between the two is as in "soft" v.s. "softly." Now, the inexperienced writer will say "Well, so what if the rules say not to use them too much! I can break the rules, can't I! There are no rules!"

Of course you can. But, there are rules. Bending the rules for taste is fine, even attractive, but breaking them without even understanding them in the first place is counter-productive. I'll give you the low-down on how, and why.

Why You Should Listen

Let's be frank. There's more than one reason you should NOT to abuse these little adverbs:

  1. They beef up the writing, making it look longer, and to a seasoned reader/writer this just looks amateurish. Making it longer with content, not diction, will reassure the reader you know what you're talking about.

  1. Are you trying to sound like the average Joe? If not, this might not be as big of an issue. However, if you are, continue reading. The average person just doesn't use adverbs every other word. How many times have you heard "put that bulky box down on the floor gently and softly get up to that random assortment of nonsense on the ground?"

"Hey, careful putting that box down. Get over here and sort through all this crap, will you?" is probably closer to what you'd really hear.

This is for dialogue. You've got more leeway with description.

  1. They're usually used to cover up weak writing--and it shows through, regardless of attempts to conceal it. New writers often use adverbs when they aren't needed, which weaken verbs. The reader will either deduce (1) your vocabulary is limited or (2) you're just lazy, and uncreative. Sadly, adverb issues are usually easy to fix. So maybe one of these is true.

These are just a few reasons not to go overboard with adverbs, ones that probably need your attention right away if you're a new writer. Looking amateurish or lazy won't earn you points with the editor. Remember, editors/agents are looking for talented writers to form contracts with.

Agents want the next Stephen King/Dan Brown/etc. All of these previously mentioned authors research, write and edit with extreme prejudice. Agents tend to turn away from writers who look like they don't know what to write or simply don't want to. Forming a contract is, after all, an investment.

Look at modern authors. King, Grafton, you name it. Flip through their books. You'll notice a certain level of conciseness you'll want to maintain, yourself. They got published for a reason.

If you want to know more about reducing your adverbage by sticking with the professionals, you can check out Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir to the Craft," or read something (i.e.: anything) written by Hemmingway. And please don't pull the, "Dickens, Agatha Christie and Stephanie Meyer used adverbs all the time and everyone loves them!" card. Dickens and Christie are from another time period, and Meyers' books are one enormous sexual fetish spanning four novels.

So I Can't Use Them?

Incorrect. Adverbs, though pesky they may often be, aren't terrible little buggers all the time. Remember the brilliant garlic powder analogy? You can use them—sometimes you should. But the problem—more so with new writers—is usually using them too much, not too rarely. Like in all other aspects of writing, there is a delicate balancing act. It's probably safer to teach you how not to use too many, first, rather than begin with teaching you to not use too few.

I have a couple of examples to leave you with, a couple that may show you how omitting adverbs can help you to use stronger verbs and nouns. Not only do these examples sound better, they're more concise and save space. These show you know how to be concise.

- "Shirley walked softly" --> "Shirley tip-toed."

- "Graham said loudly" --> "Graham hollered."

These took me a total of less than five seconds to fix. No excuses.

Rule of thumb? Use adverbs, like adjectives, with caution.

Think of adverbs like garlic powder or seasoning salt, again; a little, just a small dash will help give your creation a kick, but too much will make your customer--your reader--gag.

Further Reading:

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