adverbs are a personal choice
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
When I was fourteen, my English teacher signed me up for a short story contest.
It wasn’t particularly prestigious—it was just an annual vanity thing a local magazine did for “Young Writers”—and I honestly don’t even remember what I wrote for my entry; something about a space station, maybe? A robot manservant? An earth colony on Mars? My assigned genre was sci-fi, and at that point my only real exposure to sci-fi was Ray Bradbury. I wrote 1,500 words and came in second place. My prize was a $75 gift certificate to Borders, a suite of screenwriting software I had no idea how to use, and a paperclipped stack of notes and critiques from the judges.
One of these critiques has haunted me ever since—partially because it struck me as nitpicky, even then, and partially because it was the first piece of real, tangible, semi-professional writing feedback I ever received—and I can still quote it, verbatim, to this very day:
“Too many adverbs. Instead of ‘he said imploringly’ just write that ‘he implored’. Adverbs are lazy.”
On its own, this isn’t bad advice. It’s actually pretty fair, and mostly accurate. Except that last little bit—“Adverbs are lazy”—which bothered me a lot at the time and bothers me even more now.
Because adverbs are not lazy.
Like, holy shit.
Adverbs are useful.
I was good at approximately three things at fourteen years old, and two of them involved black nail polish. I read a lot, but my taste in books ranged primarily from Tamora Pierce to Gossip Girl to imported Australian heroin junkie memoirs to whatever trashy paperback Regency-era romances I could con my father into buying me at airport newsstands—I read The Bell Jar in the seventh grade and felt something, but I was much too young to have any kind of grasp on what that something was. I wanted to be Sylvia Plath. I didn’t know any better.
And I fucking loved adverbs.
Adverbs are easy. They end in -ly. They blend into purple prose like super expensive silky-smooth designer foundation does to skin. You can pile them one on top of the other and drop them into the middle of basically any sentence and almost convince yourself that you’re an artist just by virtue of how lyrical it all sounds when you’re done. Substance is immaterial when there’s that much style, am I right?
At fourteen, I instinctively recognized the power of the adverb.
At fourteen, I also had no idea what editing was.
Nowadays, I have an exhaustive, exhausting editing process. Part of that process includes making allowances for what my college professors called “stylistic choices” but what I typically refer to as “you can pry that em-dash from my cold dead hands, back the fuck up.” My writing style isn’t unique so much as it’s self-indulgent, and my first drafts—and my second drafts, and my third drafts, and my fourth drafts—are the literary equivalent of a finger-painting toddler just going to town on a room full of extremely white furniture. They’re messy. Nonsensical. Parsing out the elements that work, be it voice or language or pacing or imagery or atmosphere or narrative structure, et cetera, et cetera—it’s not an exact science. Sometimes I’m wrong.
Sometimes I’m not wrong.
Adverbs are a stylistic choice. It’s possible to overuse them, of course—just like it’s possible to overuse commas, or italics, or food metaphors—and when they are overused, they can absolutely wreak clunky, clumsy havoc on an otherwise solidly written piece. The mess of a first draft—or a second draft, or a third draft, or a fourth draft—can be magnified by too many adverbs. As far as words go, they’re descriptive, sure, but you know what else they are? Passive.
Fourteen-year old Andrea didn’t understand how to fix that.
“Okay, grown-up Andrea,” you say imploringly. “How do you fix that, then?”
The answer is, ironically, to ask yourself more questions. While writing, while editing—do you really need that word? That scene? What does that line of dialogue add to the story? What is its purpose? Is it important for moving the plot forward, or is it there to act as a foundation for a specific character arc? Is it a voice marker? Foreshadowing? A callback to a past event? A hint at a potential shift in tone? Is there a better, more evocative, more purposeful way to phrase any of that?
You will not have answers to every single one of the questions you learn to ask yourself as you write. And edit. And that’s okay! That’s what makes it so fun! The mystery! The intrigue! The vague sense of positively spine-curdling unease that follows you around like a very heavy velvet cape in the disgustingly humid heat of a deep southern summer!
The adverb critique I received at fourteen is symptomatic of one of the larger problems with most mainstream, widespread, conventional writing wisdom. Like, yeah, generally speaking, don’t use adverbs to delineate every line of dialogue. Don’t cram them into places where they are visibly, obviously unnecessary.
But inherently—are adverbs lazy?
Not even close.
your friendly local neighborhood adverb stan