Saturday, July 18, 2009


If you’re not a creative writing teacher, you might not have noticed that the adverb is under attack. Literary style guides encourage writers to scour their writing clean of adverbs, which reek, they say, of description.

While it might sound like a desirable thing to the uninitiated, modern trends in literary technique hold that describing something is the worst thing an author can do in a work of fiction. Show, don’t tell, the saying goes. The act of telling, we can infer, lacks credibility: it’s all talk, no action. It reminds me of another saying, this one beloved by hypermasculine athletes: Don’t talk about it. Be about it. It’s easy to disdain those who tell, those literary lightweights who deign to use descriptive words as some sort of cheap shortcut to describe things, things like characters and settings that should be making their attributes known through their actions and not the author’s words.

Based on this distaste for description, the style fascists preach all-out adverbial genocide: go through your writing and cut out all the adverbs, they instruct—mercilessly.

Detractors of the adverb use it as a way to shame the writers who rely heavily on its use. Elmore Leonard boasts, “I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs.’” Stephen King wrote that J.K. Rowling “never met an adverb she didn’t like.” He meant this as a criticism: a writer who likes words, but the wrong kind of words. Loving a strong, manly action verb would never earn her this kind of derision. Why did they never teach us about this hierarchy back when we were doing our mad libs and memorizing our parts of speech, that some categories of words are inferior, déclassé, that their use will relegate our writing to descriptive drivel suitable only for the unrefined masses?

When I read these attacks, I feel a maternal desire to protect the poor little adverbs, to defend them from the erudite bullies who want to terrorize them out of existence. Don’t listen to those jerks, honey, I want to say to them. You’re beautiful too.

How can we dismiss a part of speech that includes such graceful, succinct words as swiftly, curtly, cruelly? Or the luscious, gratuitous decadence of lasciviously, acrimoniously, presciently? Or the functional practicality of yesterday, tomorrow, soon, never?

I love adverbs for the very reason that makes them so detestable: they add a lot of meaning in a small space. The way they do this is seen as wrong: it is too forceful, too invasive, too representative of the author’s own voice and not the subject matter at hand. It’s prescriptive: telling us what to think rather than leading us to draw our own conclusions.

But I love this thick, opaque layer of meaning, painted in rough, heavy strokes. Adverbs add in the wry voice of the author, often at odds with the actions of the characters, in a lo-fi act of unapologetic commentary.

Here’s an example. Let’s start with a nice, spare, Hemingwayesque story without any description:

Fred kissed Joseph.

As far as I’m concerned, this story already has everything it needs: two boys with nice names kissing each other. But that caters to my specific interests; perhaps it’s a little too sparse for the general public. Imagine if we add an adverb:

Fred kissed Joseph passionately.

I still like this one, but I grant that it’s a little boring. It’s also a little redundant, since kissing might be assumed to be a passionate activity unless otherwise specified. In my mind at least, Fred and Joseph were already kissing with great passion, and lots of groping and tongues, well before I inserted that gratuitous bit of description.

But adverbs that contrast their verb rather than reinforce it can create their own stories. I love the stories created by these adverbs:

Fred kissed Joseph distractedly.
Fred kissed Joseph dutifully.
Fred kissed Joseph disingenuously.
Fred kissed Joseph miserably.

These sentences might be a little less sexy, but they show tension and conflict and the snarky voice of the author. I would never want to give up my right to prescribe that, as he kisses Joseph, Fred is miserable, distracted, or disingenuous.

My favorite adverb—in fact one of my very favorite words—is ostensibly. As in:

Fred loves Joseph…ostensibly.

This word might be the worst type of literary offender. It doesn’t even go so far as to describe anything, except the author’s doubt concerning the accuracy of the verb.

The government ostensibly has our best interests in mind.
My students have ostensibly finished reading Macbeth.
My love of kickboxing is ostensibly healthy for me.

It’s such an innocuous word and yet so snide, suggesting simultaneously that something is supposed to be the case and yet is likely not the case.

When I become famous and write my own guide to literary style, I will encourage authors to use adverbs flagrantly, exuberantly, unapologetically. We should appreciate their beauty as words, incorporate them lovingly into our prose. And most importantly, as with all the words in our writing, we should make sure to always use them consciously and deliberately.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the non-orthographic aspect of the illustration.


Melinda said...

Screw those guys. They're the same heartless mothers that say you should go back through your copy and cross out all the adjectives. Tired of being made to feel guilty for being descriptive. If I wanted clinical prose, I could ask the electronic nose. That wouldn't be very fun at all.

Having said that, though, there are authors that go overboard, and it can turn the act reading into something akin to swimming...but with less freedom. Like wading through a really hot and humid day.

Absolutely love the blog, honey! It's as funny as it is poignant and true.

sondra said...

Right--and they're the same language snobs who say to weed out all Latinate words. I've never understood why Anglo-Saxon is supposedly soooo much better than Latin. What's wrong with Latin??

Olive Green said...

Yes, the same war is waged against adjectives and Latinate words. I can see why it's good advice to use them sparingly or think about whether or not they're needed, but why do we need to cut them all out? It's the American way: no moderation! Don't reduce, eliminate! Go big or go home!

I dunno, seems something so macho about the whole thing.

Thanks for the kind words about the blog, Melinda--it means a lot to me!

Anonymous said...

"I love adverbs for the very reason that makes them so detestable: they add a lot of meaning in a small space."

This sentence made me happy.

It seems like there's a kind of assumption that goes unstated when someone criticizes the use of adverbs (or generally demands that everyone use a stark writing style): that there's only one good way to write. I pretty much assume the opposite; what's important when writing is to find the technique that works well with how you write. Sometimes the same rule would make one writer's work much better and another's much worse.

The example that comes to mind first for me: If Lovecraft (may the Lord bless his racist misogynist anti-Semitic heart) dropped all his adverbs and turned into some tough macho show-not-tell powerhouse of adverbless simplicity, he'd sound like a six-year-old describing the scary nightmare he just had.

Lastly, I can't help but to link to this:

Olive Green said...

I love that adverb video, Ted--everyone go watch it! It's so much better than the kind of lame schoolhouse rock equivalent:

Lovecraft is a great example. I'm pretty influenced by authors like Milan Kundera, who use a lot of authorial commentary, as well as those like Hemingway and Raymond Carver who use as little as possible. It would definitely be boring if everybody wrote in the same style.

sondra said...

"When I become famous and write my own guide to literary style"

Ummm, aren't you already doing that, and aren't you already famous amongst us, your loyal following?

Olive Green said...

Aw, shucks, I'm famous! Since I'm famous, will you publish my literary style guide?

Anonymous said...

i love this entry...passionately!

I was pleasantly reminded of another Stephen King anti-adverb quote: "The road to hell is paved in adverbs."

He's a hater!

Olive Green said...

That's awesome--STEPHEN KING is thinking about the ROAD TO HELL and what he comes up with is ADVERBS?!

Funny, because I've heard the path to heaven is paved with evil clowns.