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Adverbs – Are They Really That Evil? 

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Adverb /ˈadvəːb/

  1. A word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree (e.g. gently, here, now, very). *
  2. Something with which “the road to hell is paved”. (Stephen King)
  3. The use of which can be considered “a mortal sin”. (Elmore Leonard)
  4. Something that is “far more damaging to a writer than an adjective”. (Graham Greene)

*This article is looking at manner adverbs—mostly those that end in -ly. 

Damaging? A mortal sin? The road to hell? Are adverbs really, truly, honestly all that evil?

As with a lot in life, blanket statements rarely ring true, and sticking puritanically to the rules makes for monotony. King and Leonard, among others, have been much quoted on the subject, yet King’s headline-grabbing soundbite is actually tempered in On Writing with more balanced advice like “spend adverbs sparingly, like they were $100 bills”. He likens adverbs to dandelions: “one on your lawn… looks pretty and unique”, but without careful weed control, before you know it “your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately” filled with them.

Even though the odd adverb is acceptable, then, both King and Leonard are immoveable when it comes to dialogue attribution. Elmore Leonard, in his New York Times article, wrote how using adverbs is pretty much always a bad choice:

“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

Leonard claims his “most important” rule is: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He wants to emphasize the necessity of a writer’s invisibility: when you insert the author’s voice into a piece with things like adverbs, you lessen the reader experience, pull them out of the story, make them aware they’re reading. What you want is for them to get lost in your writing.

King quotes “‘Put it down!’ she shouted menacingly” as a particularly “dubious” example, asserting that it is “weaker” than the simple “she shouted”. “Shouted” does a fairly good job of expressing her method of speech delivery, as does the exclamation mark. And because you’re reading this line as part of a bigger piece, you know why she is shouting this, what she wants put down, and therefore, most likely, how she is shouting it—in other words, you have context which, King says, should make the modifier “redundant”.

But it’s not just dandelions and dialogue attribution. Let’s get into deeper detail. Gareth Hewitt, winner of the fifth Mash competition with Motherland and now a Mash judge, credits in part the Mash feedback he received on a previously rejected story for his subsequent success. It was a question of “tightening up his lazy adverbs”. Gareth told me it was “the simplest, most wonderful piece of advice” he’d ever received.

So what is a lazy adverb?

Gareth went quickly to the kitchen.

“Quickly” is lazy because it only communicates one aspect of Gareth’s movement: speed. It doesn’t give us any hint of mood or purpose. It is important to note at this point, though, that “went” is also lazy. And this, in fact, is the heart of the problem—the poor verb choice begets the lazy adverb. Max Adams, in his Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, writes that “if you need to modify the verb…it’s because you’re using the wrong verb”. “Went” is so bland, so nondescript, that the only information it gives the reader is about motion: Gareth leaves one place and ends up in another. The adverb is then introduced to try to bring some life into the motion and spice up Gareth’s going. But—and this is essential for writers of flash fiction, where every word counts—there are now two words, and neither is doing an adequate job of telling the reader exactly what is going on with Gareth.

The solution? Pare it back. Take the adverb out of the equation, and scrutinize the verb. More precisely, scrutinize Gareth. Why is he going to the kitchen? How will this make him feel? How does he already feel? What has just been happening? In answering these questions, the appropriate verb will materialize that will give the reader all the information they need—speed, mood, and  purpose. And hopefully they’ll be entertained, too. Stephen King wants you to remember context: “What about all the enlightening… prose that came before…?” That is where you should be showing the reader how Gareth got to the kitchen.

Different Gareths might well be going to the kitchen, and all of them “quickly”, but for different reasons:

Gareth scurried to the kitchen.

Gareth raced to the kitchen.

Gareth darted into the kitchen.

Gareth bustled into the kitchen.

Gareth marched into the kitchen.

In the first example, Gareth is feeling hen-pecked, trying to make a pleasant meal for a loved one, but the loved one isn’t displaying any patience when he shares the news that dinner’s going to be late. The loved one sends him packing, and he scurries back to the kitchen with his tail between his legs.

In the second, he’s panicking because he forgot to set the egg-timer and can’t remember how long the chicken’s been in the oven, so he races to check the bird, hoping it hasn’t dried out.

In the third, from another part of the house, he sees a burglar trying to force the kitchen window open, and rushes to be the hero, darting from the hallway to the kitchen and grabbing a golf club on the way.

In the fourth, Gareth is in charge of the annual family reunion, and is busy but competent: bustling here and there, delegating tasks and giving people orders. Much better than “Gareth handed out instructions left, right and centre, and then went busily into the kitchen”.

In the fifth, Gareth’s feeling self-righteous; the argument he’s having with his colleague isn’t blowing over but she’s just delivered a killer line and in anger he marches away. It’s easy to see how this leaves “They shouted and shouted at each other, until Gareth went angrily into the kitchen” dead in the water.

These essential aspects of the story are going to be told anyway, so save yourself a word and lose the adverb. For flash fiction, it couldn’t be better advice: an easy way to cut your word count and improve your writing. And what this takes us back to is the issue of show, don’t tell. The right word choice can portray more meaning than a whole sentence of ineffective verbs and adverbs.

That’s not to say adverbs must be outright shunned. Sometimes, they’re just the ticket—to hell, or maybe not. You can use adverbs for hyperbolic, emphatic, comedic effect:

Gareth absolutely, resolutely, categorically refused to go into the kitchen.

Why? What on earth is in that kitchen? Without any preceding context—for example, using this as an opening line—the reader is intrigued.

Don’t be put off them entirely; you will find many an advocate of adverbs to counter the critics listed here. Henry James once wrote in a letter to fellow writer Matilda Betham-Edwards, “I’m glad you like adverbs—I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect”; J.K. Rowling is renowned for using them frequently; and Bill Bryson has published bestsellers containing loads of them.

What it boils down to is a holistic view of improving your writing.

Mark Twain’s opinions on what constitutes good writing hold true today. His ultimate piece of advice was to “[e]mploy a simple and straightforward style”. That means don’t congest your writing with flowery language or lazy adverbs. And for flash fiction, you won’t find anything more appropriate.

Ultimately, then, an adverb is not evil. But adverbs do have the potential to become evil when they gather in numbers. In the context of flash fiction, that can quite easily be 50 unnecessary modifiers clogging up your word count. So be sure to tend your garden well and keep weeding out those dandelions.

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Our Chief Editor, Cheryl, has been with MASH since day one. Her poetry has appeared in Riot Angel magazine, and one of her short stories was published in This Is It. Cheryl’s creative streak also reaches to art, craft and photography, and her favourite way to combine all these passions is in art journaling and mixed media. You can view Cheryl’s work by visiting her website: www.cswhittaker.com

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