Since my first post on grammar & creative writing was so popular, I thought I’d do a follow-up series. It’s important for creative writers to know the rules of the language–even if it’s just so we can break them later.
At some point in most writers’ lives, we’re told to avoid adverbs like the plague. (We’re also told to avoid cliches, but I’ll save that for another post.) We develop a Pavlovian response to adverbs, mercilessly cutting them from our pages. But is it always necessary? And, in our quest to eradicate -ly words, are we missing the most pernicious adverbs of them all?
First, a refresher: The Chicago Manual of Style defines an adverb as “a word that qualifies, limits, describes, or modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.” (16th ed., 5.153) When I taught Fundamentals of English, I would tell my students that adverbs answer the questions How?, When?,Where?, and How Much?
Adverb Type #1: “How” adverbs, also called adverbs of manner, are the ones that most often have the suffix -ly. How did he walk across the room? Slowly, quickly, loudly, etc. I’m sure you can see the problem–why write “He walked across the room quickly” when you can use a stronger verb instead? At this point, I’d ask my students to brainstorm different verbs.
Example: He dashed/ran/sprinted/skipped across the room.
To drive the point home, I’d act out the verbs, since nothing reinforces learning like seeing your teacher making a fool of herself by hopping across the front of the classroom. Every one of those verbs is more descriptive than”walked quickly” because they convey different shades of meaning. Skipped connotes cheerfulness, while sprinted gives a sense of urgency.
I’m a believer in cutting the chaff from your writing. George Orwell’s rules for writing include “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” If you’ve never read Orwell’s “Politics and The English Language,” I encourage you to do so. Orwell understood better than almost any other writer the way that language can be used to both conceal and reveal meaning.
“How” adverbs prop up listless verbs. Cut them out and use a stronger verb instead.
Adverb Type #2: “When” adverbs describe the time in which an action takes place. Usually, sometimes, never, frequently, tomorrow, yesterday, before, weekly: These are all adverbs.
Example: “Buddy went to Momma’s house yesterday.”
The adverb “yesterday” tells us when he went. Without it, we’re missing part of the puzzle. We’d know that he visited Momma, but we wouldn’t know when. If it’s important for the reader to know when an action happened, then it’s necessary to use an adverb.
Adverb Type #3: “Where” adverbs are weird. Some of them are perfectly fine: here, there, inside, outside, somewhere, anywhere. Others have a tendency to clutter the page like cigarette butts. “Back,” “up,” and “along” can all be used as several different parts of speech, but when they are used as adverbs, they should almost always be cut.
Example: ”She ran along beside me.”
How does the word “along” add anything to the reader’s understanding of the sentence? It doesn’t; cut it.
“Back” is the worst offender in my writing. When I was working on an early draft of Grey Magic, I ran it through Wordle, which creates artistic word clouds from text files. The size of the word is directly related to its frequency, so I wasn’t surprised to see “Grimoire” as the largest word. She’s the main character, after all. What did surprise me was the size of the word “back.” How the hell had I used it so many times?
I did a CTRL-F search of my Word document, and sure enough, I’d used it something like 900 times in a 50,000 word document. Almost all of them were chaff. Most instances happened in sentences like “She walked back to the room,” or “He went back to the tower.” “Returned” is a much simpler–and better–choice.
Adverb Type #4: Adverbs of extent, or “how much” adverbs, are the nasty ones. They prop up weak adjectives in much the same way that adverbs of manner prop up weak verbs. They include really, very, rather, quite, somewhat, extremely.
Example: “It was very big.”
There are dozens of adjectives that you could use instead of “big” to describe the size of something. Gargantuan, huge, enormous, elephantine. If you’re feeling fancy, maybe Brobdingnagian. And, you know, sometimes its okay for things to just be big. Like the lowly “said,” simple words are often the best choice, even if they don’t show off your mighty vocabulary to the ladies.
Unless they’re used to as a deliberate stylistic choice or to improve the cadence of your writing, adverbs of extent have no place outside of dialogue. A stereotypical stuffy British character might say “quite” and “rather” (just before his monocle popped off into his teacup, no doubt), while the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses adverbs to create a certain rhythm. These are okay. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they can be cut with impunity.