Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

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2 thoughts on “Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?”

  1. I’m horrified! I’m thinking back to all the adverb lessons I taught my fourth graders. 0-o I pray a brilliant, eighth-grade literature teacher set them all straight on the use of strong verbs.

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  2. My view: No rule is absolute (except “no rule is absolute.” That’s absolute, thus creating a black hole that will eventually eat the galaxy. We shouldn’t have named it after a candy bar).

    That said, “The wind blew strongly” hurts my brain.

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