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Truly, Madly, Deeply…and other adverbs.

An Author Toolbox Musing

I try to avoid Twitter, mostly because it’s Twitter, and there are some things I am just too old for, but on one of my forays into that morass, I stumbled into a debate where someone claimed they’d been told–ostensibly by an agent or editor– “Never use more than 5 adverbs in a manuscript.”

Um, you can’t. No one can. Or if you somehow manage to do, your writing is going to be very S +V with some adjectives thrown in here and there. (Note: very is an adverb.)

This guy may be the reason for the advice. I’ve read On Writing. He’s grousing about -ly adverbs used after dialogue tags.

Here’s why: adverbs are a catchall label used by grammarians for words they don’t seem to know what else to do with, for example, please. Yes, please is an adverb when not used as a verb.

Want a few more? How about more, most, quite, rather, really, enough, just, and too. Not is also an adverb. Try writing without using not or never. For the record, so is also.

Furthermore, (<– an adverb) groups of words can function as an adverb, such as for a while and in the meantime. There are more, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds.

Does that mean you should go hog wild with adverbs? I think it depends on how you use them. Some adverbs can undermine intent by being wishy-washy. Consider how almost and somewhat weaken the verbs they’re in front of: somewhat cranky (Why not garrulous?), almost won (How about an also-ran? loser? second place?), very cold (Frigid? Arctic?)

What I really think the advice is about is those pesky -ly adverbs usually found after line tags like said, asked, walked, etc. I’ve read countless works by neophyte creative writers and let me tell you, they beat those -ly adverbs to a bloody pulp. (Which is also where the maxim “Said is dead” comes from. It’s easier to tell students to completely eliminate said, then let them reintroduce it again when they have more mastery.) Most of the time, there is another word that could take the place of the -ly adverb, or how something is being said can come through in the dialogue itself, eliminating the need for the adverb,

For instance: “You use too many adverbs,” she said loudly.

Try: “You use too many adverbs,” she hollered.

Admittedly, sometimes there isn’t a workaround, so go ahead and use that good old quickly, saucily, quietly.

Ultimately, it’s your work, your story, and you will use (or not use) adverbs as your story dictates. Just remember they’re like salt, a little is bland, too much is terrible, but you’ll probably need more than 5.

4 thoughts on “Truly, Madly, Deeply…and other adverbs.”

  1. Thanks for the post. I like the nuance you give this, thinking about which adverbs are valuable, and which might be better left out. My favorite piece of adverb advice I’ve heard is to include the adverb if it significantly alters the meaning of the verb. So “whispered softly” is redundant, but perhaps “whispered abruptly” could add some interesting nuance.

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  2. It is definitely tricky. I sometimes think there is merit in rules like “always” and “never” if only as something that people can push back against. One of my writing instructors used to say “everyone has to follow the rules, until they have learned when, how, and why to break them.”

    As you say, it’s often easier to tell someone “don’t use these tools” and then later “reintroduce them” after the person has learned not to rely on them too much.

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