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Are adverbs the enemy?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Greybeard, Feb 12, 2011.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Minstrel

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    I was perusing a writing journal, and there was an article declaring war against adverbs. It called them "the enemy of clear writing," and advocated their ruthless removal.

    Are they truly that bad?
     
  2. There's a book waiting to be written: Adverbs, the Enemy of Mankind.

    Personally, I can't see a problem as long as they're used in moderation and express what the author is trying to convey. Of course overloading a sentence with them is going to lead to irritation on the part of the reader, but the converse is also true: there are some crime writers who seem to think a pared-to-the-bone approach lends their work literary merit. It doesn't. As in all things, moderation is the key.
     
  3. Vita Numinous

    Vita Numinous Scribe

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    I think that adverbs have gotten a bad rep because people can use them to be lazy, and often use too many of them. Do you want your character to "shyly" talk to her new boss, or do you perhaps wish to describe the symptoms of her shyness to really bring the reader into the moment and that character?

    "I wanted to talk to you about that raise," Linda asked shyly.

    Linda couldn't seem to bring herself to look into her boss' eyes, but she forced herself to speak.
    "I wanted to talk to you about that raise," she said, crumpling her file folder, letters, and the day's memos all to her chest in an untidy jumble.

    My example is probably crappy, but you get the idea. Yes, I think that a quick check of "do I really need that adverb" is good, because you can bring a scene to life by noticing where you cheated with an adverb, show don't tell and all that, but I don't think that means you should never ever ever touch one. Moderation, common sense, and craft.
     
  4. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    The problem isn't that they're the enemy, it's that they're overused, particularly by inexperienced writers and especially by ones more interested in increasing word count than in telling the story better. That last may seem to run counter to Vita's example–where one word was replaced by thirty-five–but consider that, first of all, you get a much clearer picture of what's going on; second, that you get a much clearer picture of the character's actual emotional state, and thus of the sorts of things she might do in similar situations, possibly even in dissimilar ones; and third, the word count could still be increased superfluously by employing multiple instances of "very," "really," and so on, not to mention adjectives describing the color of the folders, paper sizes and lengths of the letters, etc. In general, unless the adverb you're using is specific, there's probably a more specific verb you could use in its place: "he ran very quickly" (ugh) vs. "he raced"–and never "he raced quickly," unless there are times he races slowly: that's just redundant. (By comparison, consider what I might have said in place of "increased superfluously" above: that–I hope, at least–might be considered a "good" usage. ;) )

    So adverbs may be the enemy of good writing in the sense that they are too often used lazily and with imprecision: they can be as bad as trying to generate excitement through using exclamation points every third sentence–that is, counterproductive. However, they are part of the language, and are as "legitimate" as any other words you might use. And as with any other word you might use, if you don't need it, dump it.
     
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  5. Ryan GearPerer

    Ryan GearPerer New Member

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    Huh, it's fairly interesting if you combine the annex to the index specifications.
     
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Every type of word has its place & uses. Sometimes an adverb is the perfect choice, but they can also be a crutch for weak writing.

    It’s the old Show vs. Tell debate. Most times it’s probably best to depict through description the very thing the adverb would tell succinctly, but that isn’t always the case. There are times when the brevity an adverb offers is best. An adverb is often straight to the point, and desirable where you don’t want extra description to distract from another part of your story.

    That’s all coming from someone with a well-documented history on this forum of adverb hating. Over the years though, my position on their use has softened as I’ve gained more experience as a writer.
     
  7. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    Enemy? They're more like the annoying friend you don't want to be around all the time.
     
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  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think it's a mistake on principle to focus too much on what not to do regardless of how true it might be. If your goal is "clear writing," or having a good "flow," then focus on that. If an adverb is in the way you'll catch it without ever thinking about it. But doing a word search for "ly" and ruthlessly removing anything that comes up isn't going to help you.
     
  9. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I think this is true, generally. Unless, of course, your issue is too much telling & not enough showing. In that case, looking for -ly words and choosing which might be good places to instead show, may be effective.
     
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think you know that's another piece of advice I don't really care for. But still, are adverbs really the benchmark for showing and telling?
     
  11. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Not at all. It’s just one possible piece of it & the most common with beginning writers.

    To be clear, I’m talking about prose where it’s predominantly telling to the detriment of the story. I’m not speaking of stories with balance, nor stories which may be told overwhelming through telling, yet still work just fine, of which, there are many.
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Are adverbs the enemy? They aren't really.
     
  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    There are very few -ly adverbs that are useful, but my take on them also goes down to who is your audience? if you’re writing MG or YA you’re fine with them.

    In general, search for -ly adverbs and don’t simply delete them, replace them with what you were trying to say with them. I don’t think most readers care much, but there are those that do. If I see too many (personally) it tends to be a sign the rest of the writing isn’t up to snuff.
     
  14. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    Adverbs are like nutmeg. Great in moderation, deadly in excess.

    For real folks, don't put too much nutmeg in your food.
     
  15. Just make sure they add something to what you're saying.

    If you write that a character "smiled happily," that's redundant. You need to scrap it. But if you write that they "smiled coldly," the adverb is actually doing a job.

    Make sure that they say something you can't say better by adding a stronger verb. "Ran hastily" is better expressed by saying "dashed" or something similar. Less cumbersome. But "said softly" and "whispered" don't have quite the same effect, and that's all right.

    Of course, these are all just my opinions.
     
  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    No. They are a tool. Not as useful as a hammer or a screwdriver, but a tool nonetheless. They perform a certain function. If you've no need of their function then you shouldn't use them, but if you do then not using them because some silly person has declared war on them is ridiculous.

    Anyone who says differently is selling something. Most likely a book on how to write just like them.
     
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  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Adverbs are tools, but not good tools. Most of the time. But much depends on your goals for the level of writing. Harry Potter ddi just fine with boatloads of adverbs. So did 50 Shades. I wouldn’t claim either is written well, but they both told stories with appeal... even if I can’t understand the appeal of either, heh heh.

    I’m not trying to sell anything, -ly adverbs are weak descriptors. Period. They have limited quality uses. I don’t think anyone ever said, gee, this person writes great, except they should use more -ly adverbs.
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, adverbs can be useful sometimes? <g>
     
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  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Anyone desiring an curious exercise in adverbs should read From Here to Eternity, by James Jones.

    Not the movie, of course. It's a little depressing that, having forgotten the author's name, I had to drill down to the second page on Google before I got more than just the film. I shall perhaps invent a new curse: may your book be made into a popular film.
     
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  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Occasionally. heh heh. All IMO, naturally. Ironically, I do use adverbs sporadically. My rule of thumb when I spot an adverb outside of dialogue (dialogue does not count, per se, but I just don’t use that many even there.)

    The typical adverb does the opposite of what most writers think it does. People tend to think it makes the statement more detailed, but what adverbs are is “vague”. So, when I find an adverb in my writing I ask whether it matters, and there are 3 options: 1– It doesn’t matter enough to bother with. DELETE. 2- what it describes does matter, so I spend the time to bring out the detail I want, not the “vague” of an adverb. 3: On rare occasions, I leave the adverb because I want a vague sense of something, and I don’t want to spend the word count on adding the detail, because the detail isn’t important enough.

    The result, I use somewhere in the neighborhood of an adverb every 1-2k words. Less than Hemingway. Does it make my writing great? Nope. But it won’t hurt. If I’m in the groove writing, I won’t find an adverb outside of dialogue, they just don’t even pop into my head.
     
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