by Sheila Newton
There are so many opinions about the use of adverbs in writing that it’s difficult to know where to turn. As a writer, should I embrace the adverb or should I abhor it?
Henry James adored the adverb. “They are the only qualifications I really much respect. I think that the sense for them is literary sense.” I was ‘evidently’ in good hands because when I first began to write creatively, I loved the adverb too. I stuffed an adverb into every bit of spare white space – and my writing was ‘absolutely’, ‘startlingly’, ‘amazingly’ full of them!
Ah, but then I found flash fiction. “How could I ‘possibly’ write a whole story in one hundred words, or two hundred and fifty words – or even a thousand words?” I declared, ‘ponderously’.
“I’d have to cut it to the bone,” I said, ‘thoughtfully’. “I’d have to scrap those ‘delightfully’, ‘magically’, ‘superbly’ descriptive words, ‘unwillingly’ forfeit them, then where would my ‘splendidly’ lovely writing be?” Down the pan, I imagined.
Not a bit of it! I was astonished by how, with the slash of my pen through the adverbs and making a few (lots of, ‘actually’) changes from weak verbs to strong ones, my short stories and flashes became tighter, better and much more inspired: my writing was improving in leaps and bounds. I began to wonder whether the adverb was a pesky irritation on my pure white paper: a pimple on the face of my creativity.
Stephen King ‘famously’ said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” in his book ‘\On Writing: though it’s more the pity he didn’t stick to his rule in his latest penning, Under the Dome, a breathtaking story-line, spoiled ‘unceremoniously’, with a tragic littering of the dreaded adverb. Henry James would have been proud.
But then, as Norman Mailer said, “What’s the use of being a writer if you can’t irritate a great number of people.”
Richard Nordquist, in his article, ‘Why the Adverb is not our Friend’, tells us, “The adverb is versatile: capable of modifying verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, even complete sentences. It’s flexible – likely to appear before, after, or nowhere near the word it modifies.”
Perhaps you’re right Mr Nordquist, but don’t you think the adverb is evidence of an idle writer’s lack of zeal in tracking down that special verb with a smidgen of ‘oomph’?
He is quick to cover his tracks, however, by adding: “Undeniably, the adverb is the poor stepchild …of the parts of speech enduring the scorn of writers and critics alike.”
Mark Twain was a huge critic of adverbs, saying they were ‘dead to him’. He said there were some subtleties in life that meant nothing to him; that “this adverb plague is one of them.” His sentiments match mine exactly with his adage, “To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. . . .” (Mark Twain, “The Contributors’ Club” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1880).
In fact, in Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape (1980) he discusses “the beastly adverb – far more damaging to a writer than an adjective,” and espouses the virtues of losing the adverb altogether. I expect he meant that writing should be clear as crystal; tight as a nut.
Before Stephen King defected (‘literarily’ speaking, that is, not ‘literally’) from the anti-adverb camp, he likened the adverb to a dandelion on the lawn. He alluded to the notion that one dandelion on the lawn looks very pretty, but if you leave it there, next day there’ll be more, next week there’ll be hundreds of the blighters!
“By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s – GASP!! – too late.”
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner, 2000)
Walter Bagehot (The First Edinburgh Reviewers, 1855, in Literary Studies) proposed the adverb as the timid, cautious part of speech, where words like ‘usually’, ‘nearly’ and ‘almost’ crop up with alarming regularity. His description of adverb-prone writers, “…going tremulously like timid rider(s); they turn hither and thither; they do not go straight across a subject, like a masterly mind,” makes my mind’s eye teary with mirth.
That “the adverb preserves a monotonous character in a sentence,” (Zbigniew Folejewski in Futurism and Its Place in the Development of Modern Poetry. University of Ottawa Press, 1980) makes we wonder how I was ever so weak-willed and hungry for these superfluous add-ons. Indeed, how was I ever captivated by them? “Ah, but adverbs are so often such ‘irresistibly’ pretty words,” I argued ‘vehemently’.
But a pretty word doth not a story make. And a punchy verb is more able to hold a story-line together; make it move forward like a lion at the wildebeest’s haunches. As Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie, Outbreak, 1995) said to Sam Daniels (played by Dustin Hoffman), “It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind.”
If the cause of our folly in including the adverb in our writing is indolence, then Zbigniew Folejewski’s bold statement, “We must eliminate adverbs,” must be the path to follow.
Arthur Plotnik, a writer on varied topics, including the craft of writing, is ‘clearly’ an adverb enthusiast. He explores the notion that, “…certain adverbial forms are among the hottest locutions in contemporary prose. . . .” (Spunk & Bite, Random House, 2005). He admits to being smitten by its use in book reviewing, quoting lavish commentary by critics from the New York Times:
- Eye-crossingly voluminous (Michiko Kakutani)
- Jesuitically contradictory (Bruce Hrierson)
- Genetically goofy (David Carr)
Who would not be persuaded to enjoy the adverb in its critical form, after reading world-weary, shop-soiled, tired adjectives the like of ‘gripping’, ‘brilliant’ ‘unputdownable’?
So, is there no middle ground on which we can hang our proverbial, adverbial hats? Roy Peter Clark’s (Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little, Brown and Co. 2006) balanced view is that “At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it.”
Ah, but let us not forget that a story is not a critique or a review. Let us not forget that in flash fiction, the writer can ill afford to waste words. Let us remember to seek out the spiciest, most flavoursome verb in order to render the adverb useless.
Perhaps we should take Theodore Roethka’s advice (The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, Allan Seager. McGraw-Hill, 1968) that in order for a writer to write “good stuff” we have to hate the adverb – ‘malevolently’ detest it.
“You are an abomination, amigo.” The writer cocked his pistol, at high noon at the OK Corral, as he faced his enemy, the deadly adverb, “You are not my friend; you are my adversary and I will shoot you down like a dog.”
Sheila Newton lives in the North East of England with her husband and two cats. She acquired an RGN and a degree in Education throughout her nursing and teaching careers, then in 2010, she caught the ‘creative writing bug’. She has been accepted for publication with the small press magazine, Debut, won first prize in an ‘about writing’ competition and around 20 of her articles and short stories have been published online. An avid reader, walker and blogger, Sheila has recently been invited to blog for North East Life online: she also blogs for a local blues/rock band. Catch up with her on her personal blog, http://sheilanewton.blogspot.com – and her website, www.writeangleswithsheila.wordpress.com.