“Adverbs are Not Your Friends” Except When They…

8-2010 Coeur d'Alene--Alanna's 011


“They moved wordlessly to and from the tables they were waiting.”  Hmm.  Is there a single verb you could use to get that idea across?  They sneaked?  No.

I listened to an excellent tape where Stephen King read his own non-fiction book on writing fiction.  At one point he said, “Adverbs are not your friends.”

Yet fiction writers use them effectively sometimes.  I think I may have an idea worth sharing on this.

An adverb that adds something to the verb other than simple modification seems sometimes indispensable.  Maybe the secret rule is that “adverbs should be avoided except where indispensable.”

An example from “Hunger Games” by Collins is, “[They] move wordlessly to and from the table…”.  When your people walk and you want to modify how they’re walking, the books will tell you not to find an adverb.  They don’t want you to say things like, “They moved quickly down the hall.”  They want you to find a stronger verb that means, “moved quickly.”  Like, “they ran down the hall.”  OK, I’ve got no problem with that.  But…

In Collins’ example above, I learned something from, “moved wordlessly.” I noticed that the adverb adds something to the walking that IS NOT about the act of walking.  This may be the key to using adverbs (as opposed to pretending they don’t exist, which is what I’ve been doing for years).

And, of course, being an unpublished hack writer, I’m always right about these sorts of things.

Let me see if I can think of other examples of this new adverb usage principle…

“She diced the eggs mindlessly.”  That works, maybe.

“She diced the eggs rapidly,” does not work because the adverb doesn’t add a new dimension or a new unrelated thought to the verb, “diced.”  Zat make sense?

I remember reading a novel in which the author listed one adverb after another to such an extent that I thought he might have been mocking the how-to-write dogma books that say to avoid adverbs like plague.  I wish I had that quote now so I could look at it again and see if, perhaps, each adverb added a new unrelated thought to the verb…

Like, “He walked foolishly, unknowingly, wordlessly, and routinely toward the ice cream box in the refrigerator.”  Genuine hack, but you get the point.

I hope my new insight is correct because I get frustrated writing obediently in the straight-jacket of  current dogma and trends.

M. Talmage Moorehead

9 thoughts on ““Adverbs are Not Your Friends” Except When They…

  1. M-R

    I have always been INFURIATED by lecturers (etc.!) saying things like this. Don’t use adverbs ! – excuse me ? How come they exist ? Did we not develop them into our language ? I will use them if I wish to, and you can get STUFFED !!!
    These homilies are like all homilies: rarely accurate and meant to make the utterer sound wise.
    A pox upon them all.

  2. I often find myself writing, for example, “they move to and from the table, without speaking,” in order to avoid the adverb. But then I’m violating the rule about efficiency of word use, and never confident in whether or not I did the right thing. Too many rules! Your proposed idea sounds alike a good heuristic, though. I think I’ll give it a go.

    • I do that too, avoiding one adverb by using two other words.

      My personal bias is that focusing on the words themselves is counterproductive unless you’re writing poetry. Especially on a first draft.

      But we all do it. So we might as well try to make sense of it all… He said, twelve-footedly.

      • Thank you! Your insights are not what I’d call shabby, either (and that’s not because we hold many of the same opinions), so I hope what I leave will be as good as what I’m taking away.

        You’re welcome to leave comments at my blog, too. I try to offer content of value to readers and writers, by analyzing how my first novel was written, which is as much of a revelation to me as to anybody else, because I wrote it entirely by the seat of my pants: Everything that’s in it came as a complete surprise.

        But don’t let me monopolize your time: I’ll be working my way through your entire blog, so I’ll be showing up here for a while; my comments will keep, until it’s convenient for you to reply.

        • You have analyzed how you wrote your first novel for us, how interesting! I’ve got to get over there and read about it. Thanks!

          I wrote purely seat-of-the-pants style in the first version of the novel that I’m forever rewriting. I try to follow an outline now, but my characters are not interested in cooperating. They seem to have to do things that I didn’t think of in the outline stage. So I’m forever re-plotting as I go. I like it this way.

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