A Defense of Adverbs

Starring Denis Johnson

Writers work with words, but that doesn’t mean we love all of them. Take adverbs. Writers seem to hate them completely, passionately, fanatically, and universally. (That sentence will probably lose me half my subscribers.)

“Avoid adverbs” is a common advice in MFA programs, undergrad composition classes, and commercial fiction writing guides. A quick google turns up articles like “Adverbs: The Death of Good Fiction Writing,” “Writing Tips: Abolish the Adverbs,” and “Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs.”  (“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,” Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing.)

My current WIP has a bloviating, absurd narrator, and one thing I’ve been doing to create his voice is to allow myself go hog wild with adverbs. It’s going swimmingly! I’d forgotten how fun adverbs can be, and how much they can add to a sentence. And since the point of this newsletter is to counter traditional craft advice—thus Counter Craft—I’ll mount a defense of the much-abused adverb.

First, let’s note that when people say “no adverbs!” they don’t really mean it, even remotely. Adverbs are anything that modifies a verb (or an adjective or another adverb), and so include modifiers like before, down, after, often, very, worse, and a million other common and useful words. Your character “steps back,” “eats during,” or “walks outside”? You’re using adverbs. When people say “no adverbs!” what really mean is “don’t use so many of those -ly words!”

Accepting this error, what’s the case against those types of adverbs? It’s a pretty simple one. Typically, they are either useless filler words (would that previous sentence lose anything if “pretty” were cut?) or else form a weak pairing that would be better replaced with a more precise verb. Bill closed the door forcefully and Sarita ran quickly across the lawn would be simpler and stronger as Bill slammed the door and Sarita sprinted across the lawn.

Often, adverbs simply repeat the meaning of the verb. One does not need to say Farah smiles happily or Juan whispered quietly because, well, smiling implies happiness and whispers are by definition quiet. These complaints are, mostly, fair. Pointless adverbs do clutter up a lot of weak writing.

But weak writing also misuses verbs, nouns, adjectives, and everything else!   

The “no adverbs!” rule may on the surface seem useful to help young writers avoid these common pitfalls… but it also encourages writers to clutter with awkward workarounds. Often this means using “adverbial phrases of manner” (if we want to get grammatical) such as she said in a defiant tone, he replied in an angry way, or they drove in a fast manner. If you find yourself using such tortured construction, just use an adverb, please!

Anyway, the argument shouldn’t be for avoiding adverbs but for using them interestingly. I don’t believe in writing rules. But if any do exist, they are probably:

1)     It* should be interesting

2)     It* should add something

  • the “it” is anything: a scene, a chapter, a character, a line, a word.

There is no reason that adverbs can’t be interesting or add to the meaning of the text. No reason they can’t complicate, subvert, or estrange. Sure, we don’t need Sally smiled happily or Boris ran quickly but we might have a use for Sally smiled sadly or Boris ran angrily.

Whenever I see a rant about adverbs, I think of one of my favorite paragraphs in all of literature from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son:

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

Many a writing teacher would rip their hair out seeing this in class, but so what? The “really badly” may theoretically be clutter, but they work well in that long, lyrical sentence. And then we have this: He was snoring loudly and rudely. What a bizarre way to describe a dying man’s final breaths! The use of “rudely” adds to the strange “offness” of Denis Johnson’s world, which mirrors the (literally) drugged-out mindset of the narrator. Here’s another passage from the same book in which a moment of horror and violence is punctured by adverbs:

Thatcher was going to come out or I didn’t know what. “I’ve got her on the floor in here!” I called back toward the bedroom.

“My kids are sleeping,” she said. The tears ran out of her eyes and over the bridge of her nose.

Suddenly and stupidly, Richard walked right down the hall and into the bedroom. Flagrant, self-destructive gestures—he was known for them.

Denis Johnson seems to especially enjoy pairing adverbs in this way: one expected, one surprising. Loudly and rudely. Suddenly and stupidly. He does this with adjectives too. Again from Jesus’ Son:  

I saw bits of snow resembling an abundance of blossoms on the stems of the drive-in speakers—no, revealing the blossoms that were always there. A bull elk stood still in the pasture beyond the fence, giving off an air of authority and stupidity. And a coyote jogged across the pasture and faded away among the saplings.

But sometimes it is a single, surprisingly adverb. Sometimes three or more. Here’s a few more lines from Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke:

Sands studied the photo of Boy Gulden’s corpse, in a bathrobe, limbs flung crazily and the tongue lolling from between the jaws.

*

When the congregation rose to take Communion, he left them to it and stepped back into the devastatingly foreign city.

*

Skip had his maps. He’d pored over them daily, hungrily, joyfully, loosed from his body, free as a hawk. 

And so that’s the lesson. Don’t be scared of adverbs! Deploy them, like anything else, with intent. Don’t lazily use adverbs that are obvious and add no meaning to the text. Instead, find ones that are unexpected and change the meaning of a sentence. Let them complicate your verbs, estrange your sentences, and enhance your work’s mood.

But then, also, I will admit that as I was searching through Johnson’s work for these examples, I skimmed past countless adverbs that were being used normally, expectedly, and repeatedly. So maybe the lesson is another obvious one: write what sounds good to you and don’t worry about the “rules.”