The Lowly Adverb

previously blogged at Gnarrative

Your pen dances along the paper, the joy of writing flowing like the thundering falls of the Niagara. Then it happens, that ugly little misguided step that will make some critiquers send the supposed masterpiece to the bathroom for a soap sandwich.

The adverb.

But what is this bane to the writing community? According to Merriam-Webster, an adverb is “a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.”
Doesn’t sound like a shady character, does it? Perhaps it’s akin to frosting on a cake. It adds to the unique tones of moist spongy goodness. A definition won’t open the doors to enlightenment or stop the scorn.

It won’t stop the naysayers from lashing out at words ending with the dreaded ‘ly’ like a weed in a victory garden. There’s one problem in that prescribed formula. Not everything that ends with those two letters are adverbs. In fact, some variations of adverbs don’t end in ‘ly’ at all. Yet here come the hard core haters tossing their red pens like ninja stars at unsuspecting writers. Instead of shaking a finger at an aspiring writer for using them, call them out on the real reason adverbs should be culled from the herd. It’s lazy writing technique to use them. It’s easier to throw in a few adverbs than to bring the scene to life for the reader. Read this example from a Christine Feehan book:

Nicoletta gasped, her entire body leaping to life, blood surging through her hotly, unexpectedly—and completely unacceptably. She was trembling too hard to move away from him, and, in any case, his fingers still shackled her arm. “I insist you return me to my home. This is very wrong.”

What the heck is she trying to tell the reader in this passage?

The book On Writing by Stephen King preaches the smiting of adverbs. However, people who hold this Bible of the writing world forget one thing—King says in it that sometimes he doesn’t follow his own advice. What does this mean in the simplest terms? He’s used adverbs. The trick is not to use them in your prose often. If you can’t describe the scene or action without them, slathering your story with them isn’t going to help. At all. So, in a sense, avoiding adverbs holds merit.

It comes down to this: don’t cheat the reader. Mystery in a story should come to prod the reader along in anticipation. It should not be a way to leave the reader to guess. Tell the story and give the reader your vision. Again, don’t cheat them with lazy writing. Putting a thick layer of frosting isn’t going to make a solid mess of burnt cake better.

Remember the moist spongy cake and don’t ruin the reader’s party.