Hello readers on this wonderful, sunny (if your weather is like it is here) Monday morning! I’m here to alleviate your Monday blues with this week’s Being a Better Writer! Which, you may notice, is still in the grips of our summer special, the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Week seven of the feature, no less!
A bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with this or BaBW and encountering it for the first time. Being a Better Writer is a weekly series all about, well, as the title says, becoming a better writer! Running now for almost six years, BaBW has discussed hundreds of topics from developing characters to working out subplots to keeping pacing fresh. If you’re new to Unusual Things, then congratulations, because you’ve just stumbled across one of the web’s better writing resources for fiction.
But what about this “Summer of Cliche Writing Advice” stuff? Well, that (or this, rather) is a special summer feature. One thing you may have noticed if you’re a writer of any experience is that the moment you become a writer, it feels like the whole world descends upon you to give you advice … regardless of any actual experience in the territory.
Actually, scratch that. It doesn’t feel like it. The world does descend on you. From Facebook, at family gatherings, in conversation with ordinary people … Everyone has some sort of advice to give you. Usually in the form of a short, quick saying that “everyone” seems to acknowledge as writing advice of some kind.
But is it really? Because a lot of advice that’s been shortened and trimmed down to a single, quickly repeated and easily remembered phrase has the issue of being, well, too short to be of much value. Or in some cases, ended up with exactly the opposite meaning to the original well-intended advice.
In other words, some of this advice writers are flooded with is advice so often repeated that few bother to question if it really has any worthwhile meaning, only assuming that it does. But …. does it?
That’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice has explored these past two months. Each week, we’ve taken some of this advice, from “Show, don’t tell” to “There’s nothing new under the sun” and tackled it in-depth, digging into what it means, what it teaches, whether or not that’s useful to a new writer—and if not, what a new writer should learn instead.
This week? That trend continues with another bit of oft-repeated advice all writers hear. So let’s get down to it. This week, we discuss a tricky one. This week, our bit of “advice” is:
Never use adverbs.
Okay readers, this one is a bit interesting. And a bit tricky. Oh, and a bit wrong. So wrong, with only a little bit of right. And you know what? We’re just going to dive right into that, because I’m sure many of you are thinking “But wait, no, adverbs are bad in fiction! I’ve heard that all my life, and when I see them in fiction it’s usually a mark of poor writing!”
Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re not wrong. But the catch is that you’re also not right, either. Confused? Well, let’s clear this up.
For starters, let’s jump back to that classic definition of an adverb. And adverb is “a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.”
Okay, you’re with me so far. Now, examples of adverbs, which most of you probably thought of when you read that last sentence, would be words like “quietly” or “peacefully.” The dreaded “ly” words that all young writers are told to avoid.
But … that’s not all an adverb is. An adverb is any word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or another adverb. So while “quickly” is an adverb, or “sadly” … So are words like “abroad,” “away,” or “tomorrow,” or “quite.”
Uh-oh. See the issue here? Those are all also words that modify a adjective or a verb. So for example, to borrow an example sentence found via Google, if I write “I want to eat later” the word “later” is an adverb. It modifies eat.
Let’s look at some others. “I’m going to go now.” “Sometimes life is pretty exciting.” “Once in a while, I’ll do something nice for me.” In those three sentences, “now,” “sometimes,’ and “once in a while” are all adverbs.
Yeah, uh-oh just starts to sum it up. If you Google a chart of all the adverbs out there, you’ll see plenty of words like “sadly” or “morosely” … But you’ll also see a lot of words that every writer uses every single day. Words like “now” or “sometimes” as used above. Those are all adverbs.
So what happens if you tell a young writer “never use adverbs?” Well, if they know their adverbs and cut them, they end up with dry lifeless sentences. “I’m going to go now” becomes “I’m going.” “Sometimes life is pretty exciting” becomes “Life is exciting.” “I want to eat later” becomes “I want to eat.”
Now, those may seem like small changes, but think about over the course of a book. Think about how a book would read with all instances of “now” or “later” or “sometimes” or “often” or even “after” taken out would read.
Would it be readable? Yes. Would you enjoy the experience? No. No you would not. The text would be dry and lifeless. Most of the emotion, the sense of urgency … all of it would be gone. The text would be flat. Dull.
Dead. As would any interest in continuing.
Ultimately, what all of this means is that as is, the saying “never use adverbs” is a terrible saying. As is any relative of it, such as ‘always avoid adverbs.”
Sands, it should tell you something that both of those sayings have an adverb in them. While cautioning one to avoid them. Yeah, oops.
So the bottom line here with this saying is that it’s terrible. Awful. Bad advice that isn’t even self-consistent. You should never repeat it.
But … there is a grain of truth to it, and that’s why it sticks around. Sort of. It’s a misshapen grain. People who don’t know writing, though, aren’t aware of this. So they repeat it.
But there are some adverbs that, in writing, are usually best avoided. Not always, but usually. These are, as some call them, the “-ly” adverbs. Words like “sadly” or “quickly” or the infamous “angerly” (yes, that last one appears sometimes).
Okay, so what’s the problem with these adverbs that makes them so undesirable compared to “never” or “later?” Well, it goes back a bit to “show versus tell.” These adverbs are that adverbs that tell the audience something about a character and do so in a very flat manner. Let’s have an example to illustrate this.
“I just miss her so much,” Tom said sadly. “So much.”
Ehh … it’s okay. But what about this?
“I just miss her so much,” Tom said, choking back tears. “So much.”
Hey, now that’s different. It’s nothing spectacular, sure … but how much of a better picture does it paint for you over simply saying “sadly” above?
See, the real reason authors advise young writers to avoid the “ly” adverbs is because they’re a crutch. In the first example, all we learn from the sentence is that Tom is sad. That’s it. We don’t get any descriptor outside of that his words were spoken in a sad manner. Everything else is left up to the reader to decide.
But the second example? It gives the reader direction and description. Tom is choking back tears. They know he’s sad because it shows in his actions, but they also have a mental image of what that looks like, one that’s much more evocative to the mind and gives them something to build on as the story moves on.
That’s why authors tell young writers to avoid the “ly” adverbs where possible. While they’re functional, they’re also bland./ Lifeless. Two words you really don’t want associated with your writing unless you’re taking aim at some popular literary awards (shots fired!) few read anyway (second volley!).
But … here’s the thing. You shouldn’t avoid all of these “ly” adverbs. Not in dialogue, at least. After all, you still want your characters to be able to say things like “slowly” or “peacefully” don’t you? And on occasion, slipping one into our prose won’t be the end of the world. Sometimes it’s simply a way to keep a paragraph from becoming to overbearing or lengthy.
Those are rare cases however. Something that each writer has to judge on a case-by-case basis and with experience.
Which then, leaves us where?
Well … though the outlook may be a little murky, I think it’s safe to say that you can disregard any form of “never use adverbs.” It’s just plain bad advice, cliche as it may be.
But that grain of truth behind it? Well, it’s a bit more useful, except that it really doesn’t roll off of the tongue. We could say “avoid adverbs that end in ‘ly'” except that we already pointed out those are words useful in dialogue. So that doesn’t work either.
What’s left is something like “Avoid ‘ly’ adverbs in narration where possible.”
Yeah. Not exactly turning heads there. That sentence doesn’t roll off of the tongue or have alliterative appeal. It’s just … a sentence. Good advice, but not exactly packaged in something as easily repeated as “never use adverbs.”
And that’s a shame, because that means it’ll likely keep being repeated when it’s not the best bit of advice, and young writers will have to learn the hard way what the saying is really getting at. Or get lucky and stumble across an author or site willing to give them more useful advice.
As for the rest of us, the best we can do is not use the saying. It’s wrong. So don’t spread it. Instead, if a young writer asks, explain that it’s more about show versus tell in narration. Not catchy, no, but at least it’s useful.
But please don’t use it. This is one of those cliche sayings that we shouldn’t spread. Let it die. Taking a bit more time to explain it out properly, well … that’s up to you.
But let this saying whimper out. Let it go. Adverbs are actually pretty good, and we use them everywhere.
Now good luck, and let’s all get to writing.