October 6, 2014

Stop with the Adverb Hate!

Can we please stop the mindless antipathy toward adverbs? 

Stephen King is widely (adverb!) quoted as saying, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Now, Stephen King is an effective and skilled author, but that does not make him an absolute authority on the best way to write everything ever. In fact, open one of his books (I just did), and you will certainly find adverbs (as I just did). Of course he also wrote: "Spend adverbs sparingly." (Did you catch that adverb?)

I don't believe that the current indiscriminate hatred of adverbs is by any means Stephen King's fault, though of course blanket statements such as the above don't help.  However regardless of its source, this intolerance is, frankly, ridiculous. 

Geoffrey Pollum wrote quite succinctly on this topic over a year ago, but after some recent critiques from "experts" in this literary field, I feel compelled to touch on it as well.  Pollum concluded: 
"Do as the advice-giver does, not as he says. When he needs an adverb, he uses one. You should too. Decisively, proudly, and fearlessly."
Huzzah. I couldn't agree more. Blindly eliminating adverbs (or past perfect, but that is another post entirely) is absurd and will not magically improve your writing. Though such an improvement is indeed the intention behind this "rule," it is necessary to understand the root of such advice for it to be of any use.

So why do so many advocate against adverbs? To encourage developing writers to explore the depths of the vocabulary available to them. Rather than write "walked slowly," we can write "meandered," "sauntered," or "ambled." I wholeheartedly support this desire to use the most accurate language possible, rather than modifying less specific words, when such an option exists, which is by no means always.

Unfortunately, as happens all too frequently, this advice has been recklessly expanded and elevated to gospel, so now inexperienced writers unabashedly hack away at any word ending in "ly" (though these are by no means the only adverbs we use). Worse, so do some incompetent or perhaps poorly educated proofreaders and editors, whose "corrections" are also treated as gospel. (Yep, a rant on unquestioningly following any rule or listening to a so-called "authority" is likely forthcoming.) In many cases, we can replace adverbs with adverbial phrases, though this can create unnecessarily wordy constructions.

Interestingly, another contemporary, baffling trend in writing claims that dialog tags should consist exclusively of the verbs "said" and, if unavoidable, "asked." So, not only are we not allowed to describe how something was expressed using an adverb ("said furiously"), but we are also not allowed to use more specific verbs ("demanded," "insisted," "ranted"). This leaves us with rather dry writing at best. No wonder that our audiences then prefer visual representations of our stories, where everything we have stripped from our own writing is reintroduced, by actors, directors, costumers, and set designers, who re-infuse the emotion and nuances writers have been commanded to eliminate.

So let's stop boring our readers, or underestimating their ability to read anything outside of quotation marks; and let's re-embrace adverbs, rather than handicapping ourselves by ignoring the language available to us. 

In short, the true question is when to use adverbs, not if.

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