Why I Will Never Stop Defending Adverbs


I suppose I should qualify the title by saying, ‘as along as others keep attacking them’. We can only live in hope that one day sense will prevail but I’m certainly not planning on it. As Rabbie would have, the best laid plans o’ mice and men are often a really bad idea so I’m not building my hopes in this field.

This might go on a bit. But there is no tl;dr summary, read it or don’t, but its time we had this out. The repetition of this nonsense needs to stop. Its only gaining momentum and idiots out there actually think they came to this conclusion on ‘adverbs’ by critical thought – cause that many people are thinking the exact same thing coincidentally?

The concern is not ‘oh a person does not like adverbs and might go light on them in their book’, but rather that its become an automaton, the very antithesis of creativity. Those advising or simply espousing this idea represent a mindset, one which will never lead to good writing, and simply doesn’t even begin to touch upon what makes good story telling.

It speaks to a need for simplicity, a step by step route to avoiding failure; a concrete measuring stick against which we can know we are good – this book is good – I have the superior taste of a true connosieur, I spotted the adverbs and darling, really it was just so tiresome…

A fellow adverb protector tried to espouse the notion of freedom of choice when it comes to selecting words, using an analogy comparing art to science. And got duly shot down in flames. I could almost feel the burn. In science, some would have it that there are really only theories, best guesses, until someone comes along and contradicts them. And scientists aren’t too fond of those that do that. Which makes science, some would hold, no different from art. Well sure, in theory. But in applied science, things are a little more concrete. We writers aren’t selling theories or ideas, we start with one, but what we end up with is a product – commercial or artistic, I’d personally hold to both. And we would like to know categorically, with unimpeachable certainty, it’s a good product. In science we have the ability to measure it in objective terms. A steam engine is something that runs on steam – if it doesn’t run, it doesn’t work.

A book? Not so simple. Even if it’s utterly unreadable it might still be hailed as a work of genius. Take a glance at Finnegans Wake. And for some, the uncertainty, or perhaps even the potential certainty that some detractors of your good opinion or your good work might be right, is unbearable.

I’m not going to sit here and say adverbs are good. They’re not. They’re as good or as bad as the writer using them. And as good or as bad as the reader reading them. The millions of kids who have made JK richer than the queen don’t have an issue with them.  Not until a few of them joined a writers circle.

This is true of every single word. Like ingredients in a cake, it’s how you blend them together that counts. Problem is if you have been primed to look for adverbs it’s going to throw your entire mix out. That is an objective certainty, a scientific fact. Your perspective is neither neutral nor fixed.

The real damage is that this emphasis  means we’re learning to look for things that are irrelevant and missing out on learning things that might actually be of use. There are about three things in terms of prose that immediately jump to mind when I think of new writers –  or just writers, I’m not entirely sure that I’m ever going to reach a place where I don’t have to keep an eye on those.

My worry is not for the published writers; the Kings proclaiming adverbs pave the way to hell even as they merrily lay down another slab.  The internet has changed things to some extent for the next wave, at the very least it hass shown a cross section of thought that might normally have been obscured. And I’m starting to worry what we, the i-generation, will offer up to the history of literature. And readers. Mostly readers.

We writers, we’re all hanging out the same places, getting the same stock advice, reading the same entirely reasonable sounding articles warning against adverbial confetti and that threatens to create a tipping point, a rebalancing of our perspective that could potentially bleed through all writing. Which given half of them don’t even know what an adverb actually is unlikely to eradicate them entirely, nor if it were simply adverbs we were seeing less of, would it necessarily be that much of an issue (they really just aren’t that important one way or another, which might be the greatest irony in all of this. If they were a D-list celebs I’d be suspicious this was self-concocted..)


But it is indicative of a wider set of dictates all of which seem designed to remove individuality and reduce our freedom to self express. And those actually are producing some rather rubbish books – bland, sterile, monotone.

You wanna know why certain books do well despite adverbs and trite clichéd storylines? Emotion – they sell an emotional experience. They don’t just set up a deeply evocative situation and montone their way through it – they live it and through them you get to live it. They are willing to risk looking like idiots. Why is this a risk? Because the minute we reveal we feel something, we dare to dream, hope, yearn, we make ourselves vulnerable. We’re exposing our hearts, a much truer piece of ourselves than our intellectual musings, carefully thought through, parsed and edited for effect. There is often an honesty in those oft derided best sellers  that you won’t find in a booker prize winner. Ironic given the almost automatic claim of soulless commercial crap laid against them.

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anaïs Nin

The ability to call a spade a spade, to say a man dug, is not writing, it is the embedding of sense and emotion and character, the promise and pull of what is still to be said in what has already been said, what  lies unseen but sharply felt, that makes a writer. Limiting your tools, or even simply, however human and understandable the desire, making a checklist of right and wrong, can never lead to the deceptively simple wonder that is a great story.

When you are describing, A shape, or sound, or tint;

Don’t state the matter plainly, But put it in a hint;

And learn to look at all things, With a sort of mental squint

~ Lewis Carroll



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s