First order of the Adverb Protection Society…


So, returning to my series on common advice for writers with perhaps the most common of all – adverbs (just in case you didn’t guess). Or rather the phobia that seems to have developed around them.

Had to go there eventually. Been putting it off a bit I suppose, because I have to admit to being a bit bamboozled. I’d honestly never given them a moments thought. Are novice works really so overrun that this needs to be raised by every critic, agent and big mouth out there?

Of all the common advice I have come across this is the one I am most tempted to put down to Chinese whispers gone crazy. Someone mentioned it, someone else repeated it.. someone else invented the internet and boom! a million blog posts later and they have become the greatest evil to ever sully a page.

As far as I can determine it began with Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writers. Leonard was one of those writers who made pulp cool.  A genre king whose  distinct style elevated him and the humble airport paperback to cult status. That makes his rules worth reading I’d say, but, unless you are planning on becoming a literary forger, not copying wholesale. It is sad that a man must answer for what others do with his words, but..

              Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin

The very phrasing suggests a writer with a healthy humour. No word is ever a sin. Not even sin. And at the beginning of his rules he qualified them thus

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over

You know in a lot of ways my own approach is not so different. I seek to become invisible by inhabiting a character, whosoever has stepped up to tell the tale and oh I do love show much much more than tell. I love simplicity and a deep sense of being  grounded in the action as it occurs, rather than constantly disappearing to reminisce, ruminate and educate.

But I do disagree in that I don’t consider his writing without ‘facility’. He cites Hemingway, a literary heavyweight, as his hero and through his own career came to inspire a whole generation. You need a little bit of something to do that.

This is the man who summed up all his rules with one dictum

If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.

I think in his apparent determination to remove the words that might get in the way he actually created a false read. I’ve read a little of him and what I have read I have had to adjust to, often rereading, a sense of having missed something drawing me repeatedly back.  In the rules he admits to taking liberties with grammar if he feels it serves the story and it is this liberty that often brings me out of the story.

You see the rules of life are not the rules of fiction. Words we hear are not the same as words we read, just as seeing a house is not the same as writing a house. In attempting to lay life unfettered upon the page, he created not a facsimile of what is, but a unique world of his own. It doesn’t read – and for read I mean look, feel or sound – anything like the world I live in, it is uniquely, artistically, artificially his. And thus to adhere to his rules with any stricture is to surrender to imitation.

Story and, on a wider scale, the written word operates like a parallel universe, beguilingly similar to ours but with its own unique laws, dimensions and history. We need an awareness of this but how we then reveal our vision is up to us. And if adverbs serve your story, as they have Rowling, Lessing, King.. and so many others, use em. All words exist to be written. If they aren’t, not to be dramatic, but they die. They do. You want that on your conscience?

DISCLAIMER:  Any over abundance of adverbs is purely coincidental…


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