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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Leela Bruce Kung Fu Fights Bullshit Adverb Hatred

Beating up bad advice since....
um, well...actually only since 2012
If you've been writing for more an hour or two, or have ever read anything written about writing that was penned after 1920 or so, you've probably heard someone tell you not to use adverbs.  You've heard that adverbs are not your friends.  Adverbs are the devil.  No good writer uses adverbs.  You should never have more than one adverb per page?

Sound familiar?

Just the sort of art-by-numbers absolutist rule that makes my fists tingle for the sweet taste of putting shitty nonsense in its place. Time to kick some serious bad-writing-advice ass.  Ka-POW!

First of all, let's talk adverbs.  Understanding anatomy is crucial for delivering pressure point strikes of sanity to insanely bad advice, so understanding the adverb will help us stalk our prey. Adverbs are kind of like the "Miscellaneous" of the parts of speech.  Anything that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb is an adverb, and that's just the high school grammar definition.  You get a few fantastically weird adverbs out there modifying things like adjectival or adverbial phrases, entire clauses, or verbs in ways that don't make them look like adverbs.  For example in the sentence, "Do it now,"  the word "now" is an adverb.  It modifies "do" with time information.

Without ever ending in "-ly."  Pretty spiffy huh?

Anyone who's ever had kids or been in an action movie knows how difficult life would be without the word "now."  So let me start my smack-down with a flurry of body blow strikes that point out words that you might not know are adverbs--words that would be quite difficult to live without.  Some of these may function as prepositions, conjunctions, filler subjects, or more depending on where they are in the sentence, but all of them could be adverbs.  And each of them would make for a substantially less understandable sentence if they were absent  This is not a definitive list.  Just a few words that generally get the reaction "THOSE are adverbs?" from the down-with-the-adverb crew.


And my personal favorites...

Too and Very.

Yeah, try saying "I am very excited about leaving tomorrow to study abroad," without any adverbs.  That should be an interesting sentence.  ~SMACK!~

Still think you don't need adverbs?  Still think you can write meaningfully with only one per page?  Still need me to keep bringing the pain?  Yeah...let's keep going, shall we?  I'm just getting warmed up.

Now that this bullshit advice is softened up and losing reflex speed, it's time to do some kicks.  Let's start with the side-kick-of-what-happens-when-you-give-bumper-sticker-advice-without-explaining-it.  Tell a young writer not to use adverbs without them really understanding what adverbs are DOING in a sentence and you will end up with adverbial phrases.  The sentence "He walked across the room stealthily," is using an adverb in what is typically considered a problematic way.  But if you don't explain WHY that's a problem, the writer won't look to the verb for the solution.  The writer will figure out another way to write "stealthily."  And then you end up with "He walked across the room in a stealthy manner." or "He walked across the room using utmost stealth."  Yay!  No adverbs!  Except those sentences, with their adverbial phrases, are even clunkier than the first one. Legions of inexperienced writers are scouring their pages for any word ending "ly," ruthlessly expunging them from existence, and half the time putting even worse writing in their place.  So if you want to see "with enthusiasm" instead of "enthusiastically, or "in a profound manner" instead of "profoundly" keep telling people to avoiding adverbs without explaining why.

Way to be shitty advice, Shitty Advice.  Now I elbow strike you.  In the face.

Still need me to keep the ass-kicking coming?  No problemo. With this shitty advice winded and dazed from my ongoing onslaught, telegraphing my strikes won't be such an issue. I can probably get in some spinning kicks to really up the damage.  So let's start with a spinning roundhouse to the radial nerve of adverbs-suck advice by looking at some authors who laugh in the face of adverbial prejudice.

Here is a paragraph from the 2011 Pushcart (that's an anthology of the best literature from all the literary journals in the U.S. generally considered to have the best American short stories of a given year in it.)   It's from a story called "Remembering Samuel Becket" by Barney Rosset.

"Usually, however, Sam the writer and I the publisher just went out drinking and talking.  Becket always had very set ideas about where to go and what to eat.  At first his tastes were quite broad, but as the years went by, they narrowed down, exactly like his writing, and the choices got fewer and fewer.  In the beginning Beckett favored the Closerie de Lilas on Boulevard Montparnasse, where Hemingway had liked to go, and where the names of famous writers were embossed on the tables.  There was also the grandiose La Couple, a small bar called Rosebud, and allegedly English pub Fallstaf.  But especially congenial was a seafood brasserie..."

That's a lot of adverbs.  Way more than "one per page".  Is Barney Rosset a wild maverick?  Or maybe he just knows bad advice when he sees it.

Unconvinced?  Let's look at something by Murakami, a writer who is basically expected to win the Nobel prize for literature in the next decade or so.  This is from 1Q84 and I tried to find a paragraph without spoilers:

"They left the seaside road, drove a short way into the hills, and arrived at the crematorium.  It was a relatively new building but utterly devoid of individuality.  It seemed less a crematoriam than some sort of factory or office building.  The garden was lovely and well tended, though the tall chimney rising majestically into the sky suggested this was a facility with a special mission.  The crematorium must not have been very busy that day, since the casket was taken right away.  The heavy lid was shut, like a submarine hatch."

Lots of adverbs.  Couple of adverbial phrases.  Anyone think that's bad writing?  Anyone?  Cause I can kick more than one ass a day, no problem.

Too modern for your literary sensibilities?  Or perhaps you don't trust translations.  Here's Virginia Woolf from Mrs. Dalloway:

"It was a splendid morning too.  Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.  There was no fumbling--no hesitation.  Sweeping and swerving, accurately, punctually, noioselessly, there, precisely at the right instant, the motor-car stopped at the door.  The girl, silk-stockinged, feathered, evanescent, but not to him particularly attractive (for he had had his fling) alighted."

FIVE. ADVERBS. IN. A. ROW.  Anyone still think one per page should be the limit?  Or do me and Virginia need to go back to back and do a face-the-mob battle sequence?

General adverb hatred needs a crescent kick to the temple because it fails to address what is problematic about certain adverbs and WHY a writer might want to avoid them.  So allow me to do what gagillions of lazy writing teachers have spent decades avoiding and has become the "organ harvester" urban legend of writing.

In a sentence that you want your reader to experience as closely to the action as possible, you should use a descriptive verb.  If you want some kind of narrative distance for artistic sake between your reader and the guy walking stealthily across the floor, that is your choice, but if you want your reader to be there in the moment, and experience that with all the tension of the person taking the action, you should try to pick the verb that combines the ideas of walking and stealthily.  "He tiptoed across the floor," for example.  We have zillions of verbs.  The chances are pretty good that most verb+ly adverb combinations have a verb equivalent.  Run+quickly=sprint.  Close the door+angrily=slam.  Eat+messily with horrible table manners=slop.  I could do this all day, but you get the idea.  A punchy verb tends to be better than a simple verb+ an -ly adverb.  But then there are just some times when the simple verb+-ly simply doesn't exist, or it does but would be too esoteric (either for your reader or for your narrative voice).  Sometimes clouds simply have to "drift lazily across the sky."

Redundant uses of adverbs can be problematic.  You don't need to "slam the door loudly".  The idea is already covered in "slam."  If you just have to emphasize how loud the slam was, write a sentence about the windows rattling or something, but using a redundant adverb will almost always draw attention to itself in a negative way.  The only reason you might want to do this is if you are exploring a narrative voice that CAN'T WRITE.  A story in first person from a fourteen year old's perspective might talk about slamming doors angrily, but most narrative voices will allow the punchy verb to stand alone.  It's like using the phrase "very unique."  You just don't need both words.

Adverbs in dialogue attribution are a risky proposition. Not only can you usually find a better verb for said+ -ly adverb (he said+angrily=he shouted), but also adding words to quotation tags can undo how "invisible" they are.  You have to decide if that is worth it because quotation attribution visibility becomes irritating to a reader.  Readers reading dialogue almost always skip over "he said" and "she said" as they read and just read the parts in quotes.  This is a good thing because it can give your dialogue a more natural feel.  You start throwing adverbs in there ("I like cheese!" he said enthusiastically.) and your reader won't unconsciously skip over the "he said" part.  Your reader will read them.  And then your dialogue becomes less natural.  But if you want a break in the rhythm of dialogue a "she said flatly" is almost certainly going to do the job perfectly.

These dialogue adverbs also break the second reason to be careful quite often.  They tend to be redundant given the context. Anyone need to be told that a quotation with an exclamation point is enthusiastic? Trust your reader to pick up on some of this stuff and only tell them when you need to.  ("Love your tie," he said sarcastically.)  If you have already made it clear that the tie is hideous, your reader doesn't need to be told every single emotional inflection.  Let them figure it out.  If you treat your readers like they need to be spoon-fed the action without leaving some wiggle room for their interpretation, your writing will tend to feel stilted.  You only want to do this rarely.  And only when you want to control the scene very tightly.

That brings me to the next point.  Value judgement--especially in character interaction.  Unless your narrative voice is passing through the filter of a character, you shouldn't be using adverbs to judge the quality of things.  "...he said sarcastically" is a value judgement.  Let your reader make the decision if someone is being sarcastic.  If you want your narrator to THINK it was sarcastic, fine because maybe that says something about how the narrator views the world.  (For example, someone who thinks everyone is being sarcastic will come off in their portrayal as clinically paranoid, without you ever having to say so)  But if you are trying to have an omniscient narrative voice that is neutral, this is just the sort of opinion to be careful about.  Try other ways to show someone is being something than just telling your reader.  ("Nice tie," he snorted, smirking.)  When a neutral narrator tells a reader how to feel about something, the writing can feel very problematic.  Readers like to make their own judgments.

Adverbs out of certain adjectives just sound clunky.  Yes, by the rules of grammar, you can technically make an adverb out of most any adjective by adding "-ly" to the end, but it doesn't always make for a good word.  Clumsily, deceivingly, healthily, speedily, piercingly, unnecessarily are all adverbs that just put the clunk into a sentence.  Use those words and you just are asking your writing to take you to...take you to....Clunkytown.  Someone reading those kinds of strange adverbs will stop (even if only for a split second) to think about what the word means.  And that means you have interrupted the flow of your story.  Then again, maybe that's exactly the kind of reality-check/pause feel you want.  Then that's a good adverb to use.

("You smell like a peasant," she said condescendingly) is basically everything that is troublesome about adverbs.  You could substituted "sneered" for said+condescending.  The adverb is drawing attention to the dialogue attribution tag, so the reader doesn't just read "You smell like a peasant," and then skip to the next line. There is almost no way the reader would NOT have known what the inflection of "you smell like a peasant" should have been in context--this writer doesn't trust their reader, and it's killing their sentence.  It is a value judgement about how she is speaking which would be better served by a nose tilted upward or a curled lip.  Unless a character were INTERPRETING her look, the writer should stay out of opinions like that and leave it to the reader whether she is being condescending or not.  And "condescendingly" is a clunky-ass adverb that most people won't read without being pulled out of the moment in the STORY to look at the language.

I should take a caveat here to gently say that you might also want to especially be careful about splitting infinitives with adverbs.  "To boldly go where no one has gone before" might ring familiar in your head, but it is kind of clunky writing.  Now I punch bad writing advice in the face, so I'm the last person to accusingly tell anyone never to rebelliously split their infinitives, but knowing WHY advice is sometimes considered good advice is probably important.  Split infinitives can create really clunky phrases if you aren't sure of what you're doing, especially when split with adverbs.  When you modify a verb THAT YOU ARE STILL IN THE MIDDLE OF SAYING, it can draw attention to the language.  The last thing you want is to stupidly pull your reader out of the moment in your story because you were too good to wisely learn why there might be something to certain advice.  (See what I did there...multiple times?  See how sometimes they're really not as bad as the pedants would have you believe....but sometimes they totally are?  Don't forget this lesson, Grasshopper.)

Now I know it's easier to just say (oh...did it again!) "avoid adverbs" than to understand ten or so whole paragraphs worth of ideas about why they can be problematic but seriously....Eagle Claw to the forehead.

None of these ideas for avoiding adverbs are absolute.  There are always marvelous, brilliant, breathtaking exceptions.  But mostly there are other places--places that are not listed above--where an adverb is EXACTLY what you need.  (See what  I did there?)  If you are reading as much as you should be to be a serious writer, you probably furrowed your brow (with no need to confusedly furrow your brow) when someone told you that adverbs were anathema or to have only one per page.  This is probably because you already knew they weren't always bad.  And you probably are already able to tell when an adverb is being clunky and when it is the right tool for the job.  So have a little faith that any advice so trite is probably that much bullshit.

An adverb is a tool.  It is as problematic to use an adverb in a place where they don't quite work as it is to try to nail in a screw.  But it is equally stupid to declare hammers are the devil and try to use your screwdriver's butt to slam home nails.  If you have a Carver or Fitzgerald style, you might eschew the adverb.  Great.  But don't go telling people never to use them, or Leela Bruce is going to have to go Karate Kid Montage on your face.


  1. Leela, thank you, thank you, thank you. With one post you have leapt into my hall of grammar heroes. I will go on and read the others but, no matter what is written there, your place is unthreatened. Somehow, I do not think I will be disappointed. :)

  2. Actually, no, I don't skip over the "he said" bits. I read those to find out *how* it was said.

    1. #notallreaders ;-p I did say "almost" for a reason, but fair enough.

  3. We could say, "Virginia and I.." however. (I went back to back, Virginia went back to back -- just sayin')

  4. Gods, I remember reading that advice as a young writer and FREAKING THE HELL OUT because _I_ thought adverbs could lend beautiful nuance, but the "experts" say no and who was I to argue against my elders? And so for a couple of years I did my damndest to ruthlessly remove them from EVERYTHING, but finally I just decided that I was a good enough writer that I could use adverbs as I felt appropriate, King of Horror be damned. And now this lovely article comes along and gives me that extra punch of validation. HIGH FIVE!

  5. Thank You so much. I never did understand the reason behind it all, and the advice never seemed to make that much sense to me because I could see them right there in published books of established writers. This was very insightful and helpful.

  6. I love Leela's posts. Whatever ass she's kicking, it gets well and truly [adverb in cliche] kicked. Four brief observations:
    1. In "On Writing", which enshrines King's "Road to hell" comment, you can still find a fair number of -ly adverbs (ignoring all those others which Leela listed)
    2. Brandon Sanderson's favourite adverb seems to be "maladroitly". Like, YUCK!
    3. The grammar checker I use considers almost every word ending in -ly to be an adverb. It will flag brotherly, steely, scaly, and many others as adverbs, when in fact they are adjectives.
    4. That same grammar checker flags "rarely" (which is an adverb), but is quite happy if I change it to "seldom" (which is also an adverb). This amuses me more than it should.
    Great advice, Leela. Keep kicking those asses.