Monday, September 10, 2012

There IS Power in Adverbs!

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King said that in his book ON WRITING. He also said this about adverbs.

Spend adverbs sparingly, like they were $100 bills.

He also dubbed them the literary equivalent of dandelions on your lawn.

Most writing gurus will try to get you to see adverbs as the devil. Why? After all, adverbs are an acceptable part of speech. However, most novice writers overuse them, using them when they can find a better verb. Characters “talk loudly” when they can “shout” or “walk clumsily” when they can “stumble.”

Adverbs tend to be redundant with newbie writers too. School bells clang loudly. (Umm…how else does something clang?) Music blares loudly (blaring’s only done at top volume, people) or people whisper quietly (most whispers are quiet).

PS - all these novice mistakes? I know ALL about them. My first project lived in Adverbia and I swear to you when I took many of the unnecessary ones out, my word count dropped at least 5K. Now, I concentrate on finding stronger verbs. Or try to show rather than tell.

So, adverbs as demon grammar spawn? Totally understandable. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with adverbs. I think we’re so ingrained to writer preaching of “get rid of those adverbs!” and “find a stronger verb!” that we’re reluctant to use them at all.

But even Stephen King has an occasional weed in his lawn.

I use them too. But let me tell ya. I try to make every word count. If I'm going to use an adverb, it's got to do more than just modify my verb. And in the past year, I’ve discovered a different way to use adverbs. Powerfully.

And I just demonstrated it. I don’t know if it’s an intended technique or if it’s just a voice-y thing, but I’ve been noticing a lot of "stand alone adverbs.” And man, is that little adverb placement at the end of a paragraph a powerful punch!

This little adverbial trend may have been around for a while, but Alison Come Lately first noticed it last year when reading THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER (Michelle Hodkin).

"It’s just a game, Mara.” She smiled, her teeth looking whiter in the dim light. Rachel and I had been best friends since preschool, and where she was dark and wild, I was pale and cautious. But less so when we were together. She made me feel bold. Usually.

See it? Adverb. On its own. End of paragraph.

Here are a couple other adverb instances from works you may be familiar with.

Like strips of photo-booth pictures or chains of white roses or Mexican loteria cards. Or maybe I’ll wear a great pair of swashbuckling boots and a plumed hat. And I’ll swagger to the stage with a saber on my belt and a heavy pistol in my holster, and I’ll thank my parents for showing me Gone with the Wind when I had the flu in second grade, because it taught me everything I needed to know about hoop skirts.

Mainly that I needed one. And badly.  LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR (Stephanie Perkins)

I know what they think because she whispers their thoughts into my ear. I can hear them. Clearly. Constantly.    SKINNY (Donna Cooner)

Todd Waterson’s house was a sprawling, three-level stucco contemporary with Craftsman influences. There were decks and terraces with panoramic views of the bay and the city. The property was secluded and quiet. Very.  11TH HOUR (James Patterson)

(Okay, so VERY is both an adjective and an adverb. But I liked this example and wanted to use it so there. *sticks out tongue*)

Or a favorite among my students. I failed. Epically.

I don't know about you, but I think that teensy adverb placed all by its lonesome can deliver a powerful impact and really bring out the action in your verb.

I’ve not only noticed it in stories but also in my speech. My emails. My friend’s doc comments. Pages we critique over at YA Confidential. And, of course, it’s found its way into my writing. Here's a sample from my boy JD.

Tori’s eyes are huge and I hate this for her, but I can’t take any more of Mom’s shit. She may never be here, but her evil spirit is a ubiquitous (SAT word = ever present) house haunt. I have got to get out of here. Permanently.

Of course, just like anything, moderation is key. Overuse of even this powerful adverbial technique will lessen the impact.

So go ahead. Use those adverbs. Sparingly. And let them give some power to your writing.

SIDE NOTE: Alison hasn’t read Stephen King’s ON WRITING yet. I have it, and believe it or not, it’s next on my TBR. But, man, reading all these Stephen King quotes makes me want to read it RIGHT NOW. And I would kick my current read back to the bedside table, but I’m reading AUDREY, WAIT! and ohmygosh it’s SO GOOD.

Have YOU noticed this adverb thingie (yes, Alison’s formidable brain did just say thingie)? What do YOU think about it? Also, have YOU read On Writing?


  1. I used to make the same mistake with adverbs too, so you're not alone. And I agree with you. Adverbs aren't evil. You've got some great examples of when they aren't needed and when they work really well. Thanks for sharing about this.

    1. No problem! It's funny. I tend to go from one extreme to the other. Too many to very few. But I do think adverbs have a place in writing. And I use them. Sparingly. :)

  2. Preach it, sister!

    Hugs and chocolate,

  3. I have noticed this adverb thing, and while most the time I like it, I find that some writers rely way too heavily on this technique. I use it too, but I'm finding that I'm overusing it in an effort to create voice. And by doing so, I've unwittingly added to my word count.

    So, I guess I agree with you that it creates punch, but that impact is diminished when it gets used too much in the same work. Does that make sense? I feel like it's gibberish lol. :D

    1. No, that completely makes sense. Which is the point I was trying to make when I talked about everything being used in moderation. Definitely would lose the impact if used too often.

  4. Whoa, I hadn't picked up on a the ending-adverb trend, but you are so right! Thanks for sharing some examples of adverbs used well--and I hope you love ON WRITING as much as I did when you get to it!

    1. I am excited. It's literally next on the bookshelf. I'm sure I'll post something about it when I'm done. :)

  5. I've read ON WRITING, and while I loved it, I also love a well-placed adverb (as you may have noticed!). They can certainly be a sign of lazy writing, but I think adverbs can also lend something unique to a story's voice. I'll continue to use them thoughtfully and sparingly (YES!).

    1. I agree. They can definitely add a voice-y element. And I still use them myself. Sparingly. :)

  6. I have some strong opinions about adverbs. I’m in the Stephen King camp and have been since my graduate student days when I realized – shamefacedly – (how’s that for an adverb) that I was an abuser. A wise, seasoned, and kind instructor led me to see the error of my ways. But I also agree that there is a time and place for an adverb – as you say, sparingly.

    I use adverbs a lot in my bloggy writing, but am super-aware of them in my fiction and when critiquing others’ work.

    In April I wrote about ON WRITING with a couple of other bloggers (including Jaime from the above comment) – it had taken me a crazy long number of years to read it. Blown away. Just blown away.

    Also, I just read MARA DYER over the weekend and it shattered my reader’s heart into a million pieces. Wow.

    Fantastic post - thank you! :)

    1. I will definitely have to check out your review when I finish. I have a feeling I'm going to LOVE On Writing!

  7. IDK if I ntoiced the adverb thing, but one word sentences in general and I like it!

    1. Oh, I do love those one word sentences. Sometimes too much!

  8. OH I loved Audrey Wait! It was so (maybe epically?) good. :) And On Writing is too ;)

  9. Thanks for sharing this. Being a novice writer, I have that problem. I think being bilingual in my head creates a bit of confusion for me. Often. I compose stuff in my head using my native language and then translate to English. It doesn't end well. Thank goodness for Microsoft Word. Can you imagine typing manually and committing mistakes all the time? I'd be killing trees! Well, recycling is also an option. LOL

    A Ladybug's Life


    1. I totally agree with you. Thanks for sharing with us.


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