Must Writers Eradicate Adverbs?
By Ann S. Epstein, WTP Guest Writer
Ann S. Epstein writes novels, short stories, memoir, craft articles, and book reviews. Her novels include On the Shore (Vine Leaves Press, 2017), Tazia and Gemma (2018), and A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve. (Alternative Book Press, 2018). Her stories and nonfiction work appear in Sewanee Review (winner of the 2017 Walter Sullivan Prize), PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, Saranac Review, The Madison Review, Passages North, Summerset Review, Red Rock Review, William and Mary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Spank the Carp, The Copperfield Review, The Normal School, Carbon Culture Review, Koan Literary Magazine, Earth’s Daughters, Ponder Review, Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, 45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, The Offbeat, CultureCult Magazine, The Woven Tale Press, theNewerYork, Emrys Journal, Clark Street Review, The Artist Unleashed, SPILL IT! and Wilderness House Literary Review. In addition to writing, she has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and MFA in Textiles.
“Kill the adverb!” So dictate the dispensers of writing advice. Mark Twain opines that “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” William Zinsser’s On Writing Well proclaims “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.” In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White implicate adverbs when they declare that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Elmore Leonard damns the use of adverbs as a “mortal sin,” Graham Greene calls them “beastly,” and Gizmodo columnist Charlie Jane Anders quips “Adverbs are my cue to start skimming.” Thus are adverbs maligned and declared downright malignant.
The vilification of adverbs often cites the following tirade from On Writing by Stephen King, a writer so talented we’re bound to pay attention: “The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind … afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly … or is not getting the point or the picture across … Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.”
Before you douse your manuscript with adverbicide, pause to consider what an adverb is and does. An adverb is a part of speech that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Many adverbs are formed by appending “ly” to an adjective (sadly, quickly). Adverbs can be added before or after verbs (quickly walked, spoke haltingly). An adverb attached to an adjective modifies the adjective (extremely rude, carefully coifed). Time-related adverbs explain when (yesterday, now) or how often (never, once) things happen. Adverbial phrases combine adverbs (very carefully, rather hesitantly). Sentence adverbs set the overall tone (obviously, curiously). Adverb objectors say they are redundant and add no useful information to the verbs they modify (screamed shrilly, crept stealthily), or are a poor substitute (drove fast) for a stronger verb (sped). Derek Haines (Just Publishing Advice) attributes a recent uptick of “dreaded” adverbs in the titles and dialogue tags of books on Amazon’s best-selling lists to self-published writers who may not have heard the admonition against their use. This jibe strikes me as elitist. Independence is a choice about how to publish, not evidence of ignorance about how to write.
Admittedly, some writers are kinder to this beleaguered part of speech. Henry James says of adverbs, “I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” His is a lonely, if not lone, voice. Moreover, even his few compatriots are weak in the adverb’s defense, merely warning against misuse or overuse. As if people need to told that profligacy is ill-advised. Every act of writing calls for thoughtfulness. What rankles me is that the rejection of adverbs is most often reflexive. We parrot and bind ourselves to rigid rules without evaluation or comprehension. Consider this absurdity: The word “extremely” appears on one list titled “Just-Say-No Adverbs” (ProWritingAid) and another headed “Adverbs To Strengthen Your Writing” (Your Dictionary). Writers add words to avoid an adverb, but is “precisely” really inferior to “with precision?”
Alas, the strident anti-adverbists so far outnumber the pros that I stopped counting when researching this essay. An exception is the Slate piece “Lovingly, Stridently, Unapologetically” by Colin Dickey, a self-proclaimed “Lorax” of the adverb. Dickey says condemnation of adverbs reveals our emphasis on “strong” masculine writing and capitalist “efficiency” in a “data-driven age” that seeks unadorned and transparent information. The result is not better writing, but dull writing that’s been stripped of creativity and experimentation. He laments that students of creative writing are straight-jacketed before they have a chance to find their own voices.
Dickey’s pro-adverb essay is so eloquent that I asked what mine could possibly add to it. What I bring, in addition to my own experience writing fiction, is decades as a developmental psychologist, whose work includes researching and creating curriculum on how to teach children to read and write. Adult writing is a lifelong developmental process too. In the rest of this article, I use this second vantage point to propose why writers are susceptible to the adverb prohibition—and other absolutes—and suggest how we can desensitize ourselves to this aversion.
Writers aim to please. Aspiring authors accept the ban on adverbs to satisfy rule-givers. Cynics might say we do so out of commercial self-interest. That is, if agents and editors eschew adverbs, we fear they won’t buy our work. While there’s some truth to this explanation, making money doesn’t motivate most writers. We do, however, seek approbation from mentors, colleagues, and readers. We write to please ourselves, but even the most independent and rebellious of us craves validation. If the received wisdom is to abhor adverbs, few possess the courage to challenge it.
How can writers ameliorate, if not completely abolish, their neediness? They can find support from those who applaud their choices, even if they don’t share them. Persuasion is a writer’s job. Persuade skeptics that for the story you want to tell, adverbs get the job done. You don’t need a pat on the back. Educators distinguish “praise” from “encouragement.” Students are groomed to be praise junkies who crave the reward of hearing “Good job!” In its absence, they assume they’ve done a bad job. Worse, they won’t risk something new or difficult lest they fail. The alternative is encouragement, which entails showing interest in the student’s work — asking “what” and “why” questions, providing information, offering ideas for independent exploration, and fostering risk-free experimentation. Research, summarized in my book The Intentional Teacher, shows that children thrive when self-guided and mentor-guided learning are balanced. Adults, like children, evolve through affirmation for effort, not reward for acquiescence.
Writers are insecure. Insecurity is a corollary of the desire to please, with deeper roots. A certain amount of self-doubt is healthy; it spurs us to improve. Too much is crippling. Stephen King, among others, says weak writing stems from fear, and who knows more about fear than King? Yet, he does a disservice to writers when he makes them afraid to use words. If King is sincere about being a mentor (and I believe he is), he would instead push them, as Dickey urges, to find their own voices, not slavishly adhere to his rules. Acolytes of creative writing may be particularly susceptible to such decrees because writing, like other artistic pursuits, bares our egos. To rebel is to risk criticism of the self, which is scarier than challenges to one’s opinions.
Insecurity is hard to overcome. It’s bred in childhood and reinforced by life’s inevitable failures in an achievement-oriented society. Few escape it, but a lack of self-confidence can be moderated. Again, education is crucial. For example, literacy research shows that writing is one of the most effective ways to teach children how to read. Why? Because children are social beings, eager to communicate. When they discover that written words are a prime means of communication (even in a screen-dominated world), they want to write too. Teachers are taught not to correct their students’ spelling, grammar, and punctuation at first, but to encourage them to focus on their ideas. The same strategy can also benefit aspiring adult writers. Authors of all ages soon discover if their ideas are not getting across to readers. Then through that combination of self-correction and guided instruction, they will refine their mechanics and style. In other words, to develop writers, one must first build confidence and then “scaffold” skills, stepwise, to higher levels. A solid foundation is necessary, but don’t dump a load of cinder blocks on writers’ heads.
Writers dread being dubbed irrelevant. Or trite, or outdated. Since our society values novelty, we are bound to reject what came before (while paradoxically accepting conferred wisdom). If adverbs were stylish in the era of Henry James, then contemporary writers feel compelled to toss them. However, what’s out of fashion is not inherently bad. Take the omniscient point of view, a perspective out of favor in a zeitgeist that nowadays prefers up-close-and personal manuscripts. Yet, the all-knowing or distant voice can be useful; rejecting it out of hand limits an author’s options. Likewise, consider the demise of figurative painting during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. It took decades for realism to stage a comeback and thank goodness it did. Art needs both Lucian Freud and Jackson Pollock. Like good improv, good writing is “Yes, and …”
At the risk of sounding trite, I advocate balance. Read contemporary authors but don’t disparage great writers of yore. Seek diversity in style as well as material, including work from marginalized and overlooked voices, past and current. In a youth-worshiping culture, elders offer valuable lessons while novice writers bring revelatory ideas. Educational practices are relevant to this debate as well. Subject to political shifts, pedagogy ping-pongs between authoritarian “adults know all” and laissez-faire “children are their own best teachers.” Neither extreme is valid.
The same holds true when developing and practicing the writer’s craft, whether we are analyzing the use of adverbs or any other literary technique. We must approach each manuscript on its own terms to evaluate what works, then chart our own course, sentence by sentence. Rather than consign adverbs to the landfill, let’s discover how to compost or recycle them.
Adverbicide is poison. Don’t spray the rule. Save the adverb.