Wednesday, September 2, 2015

In Defense of Adverbs

As a struggling-to-get published writer, I read a lot of blogs and Twitter feeds about the craft of writing. I never took writing in college, so I feel I need to educate myself in order to make sure I am doing the best I can. But what has really started to bother me is the "you're doing it wrong" mentality around using certain whole classes of words, like adverbs. If you don't believe me, just Google "Steven King" and "adverbs" and see what you get. I'll wait.

I get it. As writers it is our job to show, not tell, and adverbs have a bad rap for telling rather than showing, or for being redundant, but I feel I have to disagree. Yep, I don't care what all those English professors have to say about it.

As a non-professional reader (because I read far more than I write and Im not a paid editor or agent), I feel adverbs help out with the picture the writer is painting for me. If there's an argument in the story, but one character cuts into it "quietly" there's something important being shown about that character there. What type of person cuts into an argument quietly? And what type of character gets listened to when cutting into an argument quietly? Hmm...

Writers also aren't supposed to use exclamation marks, but using an adverb to show the reader that a character said something loudly is also verboten and described as lazy. But as a reader, I appreciate it when the writer gives me a clue as to how the dialogue is going. It isnt always going to be apparent to the reader, even if the writing is well done (especially since writers are only supposed to use said instead of exclaimed, meeped, or shouted.) I have often had to re-read scenes because I wasnt entirely certain what had happeneddid they have an argument or were they just discussing things? Did they make it clear that someone was angry, or had all those adverbs been removed and it was hard to tell? Sometimes, that slight difference is huge in getting what the writer is trying to say.

I've never been diagnosed, but I have a feeling I fall somewhere into the (lighter end of the) Asperger's spectrum. I don't get subtext or sarcasm (or body language) easily, especially in print. Being told someone said something sarcastically is extremely helpful to me. I think writers and editors should keep this sort of thing in mind for their readers. Is it clear, and I mean crystal clear, to the reader what is going on in the story if you cut out those adverbs? I feel that it is lazier for the writer to think, Oh, theyll get it, than to use an adverb or two to make sure it is clear.

Of course, adverbs can still be misused, as in writing a sentence such as, He moved quickly. Well, you could use a whole host of other words in there to be more precise, like ran or jogged or any number of other, better words (zoomed, sped, fled, flew, etc.). This is more about being precise rather than being descriptive. While its true someone can move quickly, it is more precise to say they ran. Writers should be precise and descriptive, and so shouldnt be afraid of using adverbs descriptively, as long as they are still being precise.

(A digression...I have another thing to disagree with Steven King about. In his rant, he uses "He closed the door firmly" as an example of bad adverb usage and declared "He slammed the door" as being much better. There is a distinct difference between firmly closing a door and slamming it. Tsk, tsk! Precision, precision, precision!)

Im sure editors will disagree with me, and thats fine. But remember that not all prose* has to be perfect (whatever that means) to be good. If the author is getting their point across, is using the language correctly, and is being both precise and descriptive, why not leave those adverbs alone? Why else have adverbs in the language?

These are simple examples, but you get the idea. Adverbs are a part of the English language, and, as a (struggling) writer, I feel like we should be using all of the language's power to describe what it is we are trying to convey.

What are your thoughts on adverbs? Do you have any horrific or excellent examples of adverbs being used in published works?

*I might have to write a whole new blog about the word prose (and what it means) and how much I detest it