The Case of the Dis-advantageous Adverb!

Adverb CloudIn working to improve my writing I have found the advice ‘Never use adverbs’ in many places. Initially [sic] I didn’t follow this up but I have since found that many editors and successful authors such as Stephen King (a good piece here) explain why it should be considered.

Having since read a number of articles, my initial, arrogant ‘I will ignore this rule’ has turned into some understanding; in part this stems from the ‘show don’t tell’ school of writing and marks one out as a novice writer, or at least in general. It also encourages lazy prose as well.

I decided to take a piece of my own writing and run it through the ‘no adverbs’ test. How did it perform?

A small piece

I wrote a short story for a competition (which I came nowhere in – was it the adverbs?) and had already re-read and corrected three times. I did a simple check for adverbs by searching for ly and found 21 examples in a mere 1972 words! This is more than 1% of the text! On an initial scan two of them were the difficult adverb only and one of these cases might be used as a conjunction.

I spent 20 minutes weeding out these adverbs and now have only two left and both of these are used in speech which I think is defensible. It does tell me that my prose suffers from being too chatty as though I am speaking to the reader. This can work but does mean the distinction between the body of a story and speech can be blurred.

I also found I was prone to using adverbs of time — ‘nearly an hour’ being an example.

I was amused (and I write amusingly first!) to find two other mistakes in the text and my short story is now 2004 words. In future I will do a pass for adverbs before submitting anything!

What do you think? Are you conscious of the use of adverbs? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know!

2 comments

  1. Not all words ending in “ly” are adverbs. In your example, “nearly” means “almost”, which qualifies a state or quantity rather than a verb. It isn’t an adverb. The adverb form of the adjective “near” is also “near”. If you’re going to spend time proof-reading your work, rather than applying rigid and arbitrary received policies, use the time to slowly read it aloud. Every single post on this blog contains at least one grammatical howler or solecism. This at first led me to think that it was a clever parody or satire, because it specifically purports to be a repository of good writing practices, while not always demonstrating them. I hope this doesn’t dishearten you. This is the beginning of a learning exercise, and you’re to be commended for performing it in public. As well as the mechanics of writing, I’d be interested to read about what motivates you to write prose for publication and what sense of reward it gives you. All the best with it.

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    • Christian,

      Thanks for the comment on adverbs and the rather pointed comment on howlers / solecisms (though of the latter, some are deliberate). I will have another look through to make sure I take onboard your comments. As to ‘ly’ doesn’t mean adverb in all cases I do realise that – the intention wasn’t to mean that one should be mechanical I used that as a first pass to demonstrate how many adverbs I had placed into a relatively short piece of prose. Reading aloud is good advice that I do follow as well.

      As to the suggestion of discussing motivation I will take that into consideration.

      Thanks again,

      Tony

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