In Defense of Adverbs

Cover of "Twilight (Twilight, Book 1)"

Cover of Twilight (Twilight, Book 1)

Several months ago, I read among many, a scathing review of the Twilight series in which someone had actually counted the number of adverbs in a given chapter.  There were an appalling 26.

Reading famous authors’ books on writing, including Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing, mentions again and again how writers should eliminate any and all adverbs. At least, that’s the impression that’s stuck since reading said books.

I’ve become paranoid about adverbs.  I feel guilty when I see one, give an internal groan, and berate myself for using them as a writer.  When I churn another one out, I assume I will only need to find some more inventive way to write the same phrase without the offending word.  It’s as though the use of adverbs is seen as a form of laziness in writers.  I’m starting to have nightmares that soon they’ll be coming after my adjectives and commas next. DMS is especially unhappy with my standard usage of commas, double spaces after periods, and character in my writing voice. I do not conform to their AP style!

At what point do I cross the line into an obscene and unforgivable number of adverbs?  Is Meyer’s 26 a number to avoid?  Or is the cut off a bit earlier, say, around 15 or 20?  Is there a ratio of adverbs per page that’s acceptable?  And how will I be viewed by readers who count adverbs in any given chapter and find I’ve come up with a surfeit of such descriptive words?

So, here I am reading through Eila, Book 1, during what I hope will be our final editing pass before we send off query letters (and stalk) editors to get in good with some big-named publishing house, and I’ve been circling and keeping count of adverbs. The introduction is ok, there are only three.  The first chapter has a more worrisome number: 17.  But chapter two has an unacceptable 37 adverbs, and the third contains an obscene number: 43.

Near to hyperventilating over these numbers, I began thinking about what I had read through.  The content is standing much stronger than it did in draft zero several months and two previous editing passes ago.  I am able to see the characters and their actions better due to the clarity of the writing.  What’s more, as I circled adverbs and considered them in context, I began to realize that not every adverb needed to be removed.  Oh sure, there were the superfluous words ending in -ly that did not add to the flow of the text, but there were, as I found, good reasons to keep a number of adverbs in their current places.  They supported and enhanced the text rather than detracting from it.

I questioned why adverbs were considered so heinous by a great number of people, and started to see the good adverbs from those that tugged at readers eyes and hindered the enjoyment of the story.  Why do we have adverbs if they are considered malignant to effective storytelling?

It dawned on me, as I am certain others have discovered, that like profanity, every word has its place.  Some may have spawned from the laziness inherent in verbal communication, but when used in a way that gives a story greater vitality and nuance, how could we not use them?

Cover of "Zero History"

Cover of Zero History

And in this mindset, I picked up Zero History by William Gibson on the paperback shelf at the library and read two pages, engaged in the complexity of his language.  I stopped at the end of page two and counted: ten adverbs in two pages. There were two adverbs on the first page–a sin to have any in those first, crucial paragraphs–and here he has two!  Eight on the second, with two so close they might as well be in the same sentence together. Ten adverbs in two pages.

If the father of the cyber-punk novel can use adverbs, deftly and in moderation, then so can I.

Adverbs in this post: 4.



8 responses »

  1. though i know he’s the founder of “cyberspace” and many of our other contemporary sci-fi nouns, i don’t enjoy his writing. i found “neuromancer” a bore.

    still, your article has merit. brava! ❤

    • Neuromancer was what it was for its time. By the time I read it, it seemed old hat to me, but I had to remind myself that it started with him (and the influences of his contemporaries). His short “Johnny Mneumonic” was better in terms of writing, and this new book already seems rather compelling given the depth and complexity of the language. I won’t know until I get further into it if the story’s interesting, but this book has been described as witnessing the present as if a time traveler from the past; so the present day feels futuristic.

  2. Pingback: Purging the Poison: 7 Deadly Words and Phrases | Shaggin the Muse

    • Interesting. I’m guilty of a few of those, and a few others my mother tries to put into my work when she edits. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an excellent editor on the whole, but she often ends up suggesting passive narrative in place of my active language. I end up seeing the problem she pointed out and fix it a different way. It all works out in the end.

  3. There is always going to be someone who is going to “correct you” why bother to worry about it.

    I used to have an English Prof. that would come to my site and rag me about my apostrophes and how they were in the wrong place and how a lot of my grammar was not all that correct.

    Here is the bottom line: I am still getting up early and doing my thing, don’t know what happened to her?

    Guess she tired of it and moved on.


    • Were your apostrophes in inappropriate places? Was your grammar incorrect? These things matter to a writer. If this is to be my career, I want my language to be as exemplary and my stories to be as enlivening as my favorite authors. As a professional, I need my work to reflect my level of professionalism, just as would be expected in any job performance. So it does matter, even if there are people who will nag me over time. Certainly, I dread the same detractors who hated books like “Twilight” enough to count the adverbs in a given chapter, and I will deal with them when I get there. My goal, however, is to make my language as perfect to me as I can before publishing my work. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.”

  4. Pingback: The Perils of Adverbs « bardicblogger

  5. The use of such adverbs is so widespread that it can be regarded as a characteristic of British social dialects rather than of regional dialects ( Coupland 1988 : 35). This view is shared by Kortmann (2002 : 198-199). In Kortmann (2004 : 1099), this characteristic is considered from a world-wide perspective: in almost all non-standard varieties of English around the world, “adverbs have the same form as adjectives”, and “this is a pervasive and exceptionless property for manner adverbs (he came quick)”. Similarly, Kortmann & Schneider’s (2006) general survey of varieties of English gives an overall picture of the spread of both adverbs of manner (he treated her wrong) and adverbs used as degree modifiers (that’s real good) in 46 regional varieties of English around the world. In 29 of these varieties, suffixless de-adjectival adverbs are pervasive; in ten others they are very frequent. The overall proportion of the zero forms of degree modifiers is similarly high: they predominate in 27 out of the 46 varieties, and are very frequent in another eight.

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