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Can we talk about adverbs? (1 Viewer)

piperofyork

Friends of WF
Many writing guides warn against using adverbs. Although I see how they can be overused or used unnecessarily (when a better verb could replace the verb-adverb pair), I'm far from convinced that adverbs are such villains as the guides make out. In cases where there's no single verb to replace the verb-adverb pair, for example, the adverb adds helpful nuance to the action (or so I tend to think). But maybe I'm missing something. What do you all think about adverb usage?
 

piperofyork

Friends of WF
For example, "She breathed deeply" seems clear and direct and helpful and informative - at least as much so as "She took a deep breath." I suppose I could try to find another way to paint the same picture, but I'm guessing it would end up being rather convoluted, and sometimes simplicity is desirable. But again, I may be missing something, so I'm eager to hear what you think. :)
 

Gamer_2k4

WF Veterans
Adverbs get a bad rap because beginning authors (and some experienced ones) overuse them. But there's nothing inherently wrong with adverbs; as with anything else, they're one of the many tools writers have available to them.

There's such a thing as using too many nails to build a house. But you should still probably hammer a few in during the construction process.
 

Lawless

Senior Member
Maybe it's an English language thing. At any rate, I have noticed that when I write in English, I use lots of adverbs and they do feel a tiny bit strange at times, but I find it too inconvenient to figure out something else, such as replace "She breathed deeply" with "She took a deep breath". People will understand anyway that I'm not a native speaker, so I keep using adverbs and don't sweat it.

How you should write is not for me to say, though. :)
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
I put a chapter on adverbs in my first punctuation and grammar book. When I was done, I had a nice discussion of when to avoid adverbs, and when to use them.

Then I discovered a flat sentence could be pepped up with a good adverb. This doesn't happen often. And I do mean a good adverb, it only works when I strive for accuracy.

while he makes clear -- to everyone, including me -- that I don't belong here.
while he makes conspicuously clear -- to everyone, including me -- that I don't belong here.

So, yes, very possible to misuse and overuse adverbs. But I decided that the advice to avoid them, besides its other problems, covers up their power. You should learn to be good at using them -- they're both a trap and a magical skill.

"Um, uh" I said articulately. (The Truth Commission)
 

piperofyork

Friends of WF
Thank you, @EmmaSohan.

I'd like to ask about a particular case, if that's all right.

In this scene, a teenage boy asks his mother what she thinks his dead sister would look like if she had lived:

“What do you think she would look like now?”
His mother looked up from her book and sighed quietly. It was dark and the rain was starting to fall. The surf washed up on the shore. “Probably a lot like you.”


It seems to me that 'quietly' does important work here - the mother sighs because it is a painful topic to revisit, but she does so quietly because she doesn't want her sensitive son to hear it. Do you think that the adverb is useful here, despite its relative simplicity?

Sorry if I'm getting too much in the weeds, by the way. I've probably been mildly scarred by the avalanche of warnings against adverbs...
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Thank you, @EmmaSohan.

I'd like to ask about a particular case, if that's all right.

In this scene, a teenage boy asks his mother what she thinks his dead sister would look like if she had lived:

“What do you think she would look like now?”
His mother looked up from her book and sighed quietly. It was dark and the rain was starting to fall. The surf washed up on the shore. “Probably a lot like you.”


It seems to me that 'quietly' does important work here - the mother sighs because it is a painful topic to revisit, but she does so quietly because she doesn't want her sensitive son to hear it. Do you think that the adverb is useful here, despite its relative simplicity?

Sorry if I'm getting too much in the weeds, by the way. I've probably been mildly scarred by the avalanche of warnings against adverbs...
Yes, for me it works here. If she wanted to let the son know that she was displeased with him constantly bringing up the topic, you might say, "sighed loudly," which would give it a completely different meaning. So, in this case, the adverb builds character and tells the story.
 
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EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
I have chills -- the delay between question and answer is amazing. (Assuming you do not usually throw in stray details.) I think the adverb helps support that delay -- it raises interest. So I agree, good adverb. And sighed quietly seems to work better than quietly sighed, though I don't know why.
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
There's a fair bit of common writing wisdom that's misguided, if not outright wrong, about most mechanical aspects of the process.

The idea that killing adverbs wherever you find them is akin to the critic who demands you pare everything the bone because people don't have the patience or desire for a story that develops in its own time. Is there a rational germ behind this advice? Maybe. But it cannot and should not be applied equally across all works.

Now...if your work is bruised purple and falling over its own feet, some trimming is arguably in order. If, on the other hand, you have a richly developed world and characters with deeper history than a list of board-gaming attributes, cutting can (and often does) do more harm than good.

Telling a writer to Ctrl+F "ly" and delete is lazy shorthand by people who lack nuance, aimed at people who lack understanding that fiction is art, not science, and cannot be made uniform for mass production without defeating its own purpose.
 

piperofyork

Friends of WF
I have chills -- the delay between question and answer is amazing. (Assuming you do not usually throw in stray details.) I think the adverb helps support that delay -- it raises interest. So I agree, good adverb. And sighed quietly seems to work better than quietly sighed, though I don't know why.
Thank you, Emma - it's a relief to hear that, especially given that this scene comes at the very beginning of my novel!
 

piperofyork

Friends of WF
There's a fair bit of common writing wisdom that's misguided, if not outright wrong, about most mechanical aspects of the process.

The idea that killing adverbs wherever you find them is akin to the critic who demands you pare everything the bone because people don't have the patience or desire for a story that develops in its own time. Is there a rational germ behind this advice? Maybe. But it cannot and should not be applied equally across all works.

Now...if your work is bruised purple and falling over its own feet, some trimming is arguably in order. If, on the other hand, you have a richly developed world and characters with deeper history than a list of board-gaming attributes, cutting can (and often does) do more harm than good.

Telling a writer to Ctrl+F "ly" and delete is lazy shorthand by people who lack nuance, aimed at people who lack understanding that fiction is art, not science, and cannot be made uniform for mass production without defeating its own purpose.
Thank you, JBF, this is reassuring - heartening, really (especially to the Tolkienesque side of me, which is sometimes a bit dismayed by fantasy writing that doesn't go far beyond "a list of board-gaming attributes"...)
 

Phil Istine

WF Veterans
My view: adverbs are fine in moderation or when there is no reasonable, stronger verb to use instead. Using a stronger verb where practical can give additional life to the writing and to the characters, because the verb selection can be used to fit the characters or to emphasise what's going on. Excessive adverb usage can be an indication of lazy writing, or of writing by someone who is inexperienced. However, I reckon it's okay in early draft(s) while still trying to lay out the more general story. Attempting to make the writing nuanced at that stage may serve to hinder progress.

In the example further up the thread: "She breathed deeply" or "She took a deep breath." The author may want to convey something about "she". Is she scared or shocked? "She gasped" Is she out of breath? "She panted" Is she deeply asleep? "Her belly rose and fell as if chasing the demons from her dreams" Does she have asthma? "She struggled for air, each breath gaining precious seconds as she loaded her inhaler"
Okay, the latter ones are a bit longer, but avoiding some adverbs can be an opportunity to show a little more about a person, place, or thing.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
His mother looked up from her book and sighed quietly. It was dark and the rain was starting to fall. The surf washed up on the shore. “Probably a lot like you.”
I'd drop 'quietly'. You expect a sigh to be quiet, so it's redundant. It would be remarkable if the sigh was loud enough to hear at a distance, although that might entail some word other than sigh. :)

You don't write without adverbs, but they are an element it's easy to overuse. Beginning writers love to add them to dialogue tags, which is a place they should rarely appear. You can do so much more by simply writing more:

"I hate this!" he exclaimed emphatically.

That's terrible writing.

"I hate this!" His emphatic response was out of place. People knew Joe for his easygoing nature, so this exclamation turned heads and made everyone wonder what was wrong.

Or

"I hate this!" Everyone accepted Joe's volatility as part of his nature. He hated everything that didn't go just his way. Nary a person in the office paid any attention.

Instead of a ham-handed use of an adverb, we have the opportunity to describe Joe and even move the plot along. Why would we want to use one useless word when we have the chance for rich content instead?

Let's be clear about one thing:
It doesn't matter one bit if you write "sighed quietly". You shouldn't have to discuss it ... you shouldn't have to ask about it. It's irrelevant. It only becomes relevant if you're doing it so often the reader eventually thinks, "OMG, I can't take this anymore", and I've been that reader on occasion. The reason I inspect each use of an adverb and get rid of redundant or useless adverbs is not because that individual instance is an affront to the reader, but because by eliminating useless occurrences, I know I'm not overusing them. THEN, when I WANT to include one, on purpose, I can do that without questioning whether I should be.
 
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piperofyork

Friends of WF
I reckon it's okay in early draft(s) while still trying to lay out the more general story. Attempting to make the writing nuanced at that stage may serve to hinder progress.
I hear you. I'm getting some of the best writing advice I've ever received lately - a sharp push up the learning curve - and as a result my writing has slowed to a crawl. But I'm trying to see it in the best light: I'm gaining confidence in my ability to distinguish mediocre from good writing. I just have to push through the last 3 chapters or so and set it aside for a while before cooking up a dramatic "puts on his editing headband" scene and getting back to work.
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
It's a shame when good writing advice gets turned into dogma. Like JBF pointed out, it's lazy.

The way I originally heard this advice seems a lot more reasonable. If your writing seems weak and you're not sure why, start looking for adverbs and see if the sentences can be reworded without them. Often it'll require a sentence that is stronger because it is more focused on the verb.

Bud brought his fist down on the table strongly, making the dishes jump.
Bud made the dishes jump when he pounded the table.

Erz stepped quickly to meet the sword-thrust of his enemy.
Metal clashed and sang as Erz parried.

The towel hung wetly on the line.
The sodden towel dripped on the line.

Is it always necessary to reword? No. Is it worth thinking about so that adverbs aren't used as a crutch? Sure. Does it help to point this out to writers who are killing their work with weak writing? Yes.
 

Gamer_2k4

WF Veterans
Instead of a ham-handed use of an adverb, we have the opportunity to describe Joe and even move the plot along. Why would we want to use one useless word when we have the chance for rich content instead?

To me, it's the wordy alternatives that are ham-handed - the very definition of telling rather than showing. Give the exclamation, give the reaction (or lack of it), and let the reader fill in the blanks.

Besides, "exclaimed emphatically" is only bad because it's redundant, not because there's anything wrong with "emphatically."
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
To me, it's the wordy alternatives that are ham-handed - the very definition of telling rather than showing. Give the exclamation, give the reaction (or lack of it), and let the reader fill in the blanks.

Besides, "exclaimed emphatically" is only bad because it's redundant, not because there's anything wrong with "emphatically."
If the action (showing) tells you something about the character then I'd say go that extra mile. In a lot of cases though, it's perfectly fine IMO. In general, I think: If the adverb doesn't change the assumed state of a thing then it can either go or a better verb could be found. If the adverb changes the assumed state of a thing, then it's completely justified.
 

Matchu

Senior Member
Well yes - completely @Gamer_2k4

For me that is the pinnacle of all success - if I have [even] ever achieved said objective. Moi..!

How with the deftest sprinkle of my six words a stranger sat one million worlds away paints kaleidoscopic encounters behind his eyes, umm. I shall now go engrave principle on some mountainside. Hefty.

On the other hand I think other people enjoy writing and enjoy reading every swing of the ham fist. It is so difficult to say?

...

And as to 'breathing' in stories. I can hardly criticise because I too have done it - after the sunlight streams through the motes of dust paragraph, Jack breathed. He paused and he felt breaths caressing top crust of his tongue etc..[d1]
 
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