Pet Writing Peeves: Adverbs

Adverbs top the list of my Pet Writing Peeves. These little words modify actions and usually end in -ly. They’re perfectly acceptable in lots of different situations, but should be used sparingly in novels.

Paragraphs riddled with -ly words — like the one above — are fine in blog posts, status updates, conversations, tweets, news stories, and lots of other places. The occasional use in novels — especially in dialogue — isn’t a big issue with me either. But lots of adverbs in the narration are an indicator of lazy writing.

A novel is supposed to show the story, not tell. Adverbs are tell words. They’re fine in conversation and in dialogue because talking is all about telling another person something. But in narration, an adverb-verb combo screams “wrong verb!” The right verb wouldn’t need the adverb.

The natural inclination is to latch onto the first verb-adverb combo that pops into my head. I don’t fret over them too much in a first draft when the goal is to get to the end. I’ll grab the simplest verb (walk, wander, look), pop in the adverb, and move on, knowing I’ll get rid of the adverbs later. He walked quickly, wandered haphazardly, and looked intensely will be replaced in later drafts by hurried, meandered, and stared.

I notice adverbs. Depending on usage, I classify adverbs in novels as either Absolutely Nots, Groaners, or The Unnoticed. Fifty Shades of Gray contains so many Absolutely Nots and Groaners that even The Unnoticed stand out.

Absolutely Nots are adverbs that appear in dialogue tags — the words before or after quotes that indicate who’s talking. “Get out,” he said menacingly. Snarled would be a better verb. My writers group instilled in me that adverbs in dialogue tags are inexcusable. Blame them.

Groaners are adverbs that show up around important actions or high impact moments.  He kissed her hungrily, fervidly staring at scantily clad breasts that heaved teasingly beneath her blouse. Adverb abuse takes me right out of the story.

The Unnoticed are adverbs that, for one reason or another, don’t leap off the page at me. Most of the time, they’re used more like an adjective, as in the beautifully crafted cabinets. Unless the cabinets are essential to the plot, describing them would slow the story down too much.

Editors apparently don’t share my view of adverbs. A wonderful book by a famous author I’m reading is full of adverbs — even in dialogue tags. Editing standards change over time. Perhaps I’m just old fashioned.

I will — from time to time — use an adverb, especially when alternatives require bulky or cumbersome constructions. But mostly, I don’t. As a result, my writing — at least to me — is stronger.

In the end, avoiding adverbs is a matter of pride. I know better, and suspect at least a few readers feel the same way. I owe them the few extra minutes required to find the right verb.

2 responses to “Pet Writing Peeves: Adverbs”

  1. Fashion does change. When I was a gel, way back in the dark age when communication meant writing a letter or picking up a telephone, my creative writing teacher encouraged us to use adverbs, run on sentences and if we used ‘said’ as a dialogue tag it would be red-penned with a list of alternatives crammed into the margin. “We have a beautiful and rich language,” she said, “with words fit for every purpose. Never be afraid to use them creatively.” Trying to write for the modern, American market where said is the only choice, adverbs are to be shunned, sentences should be short and even description should be as concise as possible, has been a very steep and painful learning curve.

    • I’m always learning new things, and stuff is always changing. I’ve finally trained myself not to include the comma before “too!” A newcomer in my writers group tried to come up with something different for “said” with every dialogue tag. In the end, all the substitutes were distracting, whereas readers hardly notice “said” any longer. Thanks for stopping by!