Cut all Your Adverbs (and Adjectives too!): A Breakdown of The Overstated (and Under Explained) Advice
One of the often lofted pieces of creative writing advice that is tossed around is that one should eliminate all adverbs from their prose. A few months ago, a literary agent on Twitter extended the axe to include adjectives, and it kind of exploded into some drama in writing and publishing circles, including Chuck Wendig who engaged in a wonderful take down and break down of said remark which you can read here.
Now, I have never agreed with the starkness of this advice even when it was only applied to adverbs (and extending it to adjectives just blows my mind, Adjectives? Like even colors?). This is even though I’ve been hearing it repeated for years, since I started in my creative writing BA in 2008 (#old).
But I also do not not believe in it. By which I mean, underneath the rule™ is an actual kernel of helpful truth. We just have to mine it out a bit.
Writing Rules Overall
First of all, writing rules are more like guidelines than actual rules. To all rules there are exceptions. All rules can be broken.
Second of all, writing goes through trends. Many are long term trends. Still, trends. That’s why they split up literature classes into various periods and artistic movements. Writing rules that are repeated like fact right now have all the potential to change.
Third of all, writing rules are opinions. They reflect certain tastes and preferences. There is quite obviously many different types of creative writing being published in the world right now, and not just amongst different genres. There are wordy things and Ernest Hemingway-like succinct things. There are things that follow the strict rules of grammar and those that go with a dialectal grammar or voice. First person and third. Writing better at prose than story and writing better at story than prose. And so on.
Just as there's all kinds of writing (and the writers that created it), there are all kinds of readers who want to read different things and have different tastes.
Quick Definition Time
Adjectives are words that modify nouns. Ex. The large [adjective] house [noun].
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Ex. The really [adverb] fast [adjective] car. He ran [verb] quickly [adverb].
You know how I mentioned the kernel of truth up there? Also, do you know how the cut adverbs (and adjectives!!!) advice comes with no or minimal additional information? Yeah, that’s where that kernel of truth is hidden. There is actual logic and reasoning and in depth writing advice in the notion of cutting adverbs, but is rarely or minimally discussed. Instead, people treat it as a call to begin an adverb cross out word search on your draft.
And honestly, it’s less of a case of cutting adverbs, but replacing them.
Let’s took at the cases of when/why you should cut (but really replace) adverbs.
Why #1: The specific adverb is clunky/awkward
Some adverbs are common place and fit smoothly into a sentence.
“The blood red car” (Yup, “blood” here is an adverb as it modifies “red” an adjective.)
“She said loudly.”
“He ran quickly.”
Some are awkward to get your mouth around.
“She said shakily.”
“He ran jaggedly.”
If it is awkward to say or awkward to the ear, that might be a sign that it will stick out like a sore thumb to the reader. In writing critique circles, when discussion the minutiae of prose, we often discuss things that ‘take us out of the story.’ Those are the awkward or confusing turns of phrases or sentences can confuse and stop up the reader, ruining the flow of the story. If you adverb is awkward and ruining the flow of the story, you should definitely considering cutting/replacing it.
Why #2: The verb/adverb pairing could be replaced by a stronger verb.
Taking the samples from above.
“She said loudly” ---> “She yelled” or “She shouted” or “She screamed”
Now, all of those alternatives have slightly different connotations and are not interchangeable, but that’s also part of the point. “Said loudly” can mean a lot of things, while the other options are more specific/more detailed, aka stronger verbs.
“He ran quickly” ---> “He sprinted”
In your mind’s eye, can’t you just see how much faster this fictional he is running when he sprinted. Isn’t it such a more powerful word?
While I am also do not fall on the side of ‘everything should read like Ernest Hemingway’ (I definitely love flowery F. Scott Fitzgerald too much for that), one of your writing considerations should be ‘How can I explain this fully but with the least amount of words?’
This ‘Why #2’ applies to any instance of the word ‘really’ (except all the exceptions for dialogue and voice and the cases you just 'really' need to use it). (In fact, I had a high school teacher who banned all uses of the words ‘really’ and ‘very’ in our papers, but that was academic writing not creative writing.)
You might rebuke me here and say ‘what if one of the stronger verbs doesn’t fit what I mean?’ Such as, what if you mean ‘said loudly’ and not ‘yelled.’
To which I say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to cut every adverb’ and also ‘Think creatively, though, about what you want to say.’
Which segues into…
Why #3: Can you say it better way?
In the case of this example, ‘she said’ is a common dialogue tag, and dialogue tags are rife with their own conflicting writing rules. One common rule that is mostly accurate is that most of the time you just want to use ‘he/she said.’ In the cases were you don’t, taking on an adverb might not be the best option to add emphasis to your dialogue.
For example, instead of ‘She said loudly’ ...
What about: She raised her voice to speak over the crowd. “Blah, blah, blah.”
Or: Her voice reached a pitch it only did when she was under the max amount of stress.
Or: She tried to tap down her anger, but her voice came out booming regardless.
Or: She said, like a roll of thunder.
Notice how these all say more than the adverb ‘loudly.’ Notice how they all even say more than the ‘strong verbs.’ When you choose to say it in a more creative or more detailed way, you as the writer have the opportunity to tell more than the pitch of a character’s voice (in this example), but can use your descriptive words to impart theme, reveal character, create mood, set the scene, and/or impart your voice/style into the prose.
Am I saying that you should replace every adverb with a piece of lyrical prose?
No. A hundred times no. Because that would be just as (or more) ridiculous than saying to cut them all. And as I said in the beginning, all writing rules (even mine here) can be broken, are trends, and are opinions.
What I am saying is that if it is so important that you added that adverb, that the reader know it was said ‘loudly’ that you balk at cutting it, maybe there is more in the story to mine.
Why #4: Adjectives
I… I just don’t know what to say about cutting adjectives. That’s just ridiculous. The traditional advice is ‘cut all adverbs’ but this literary agent added adjectives to the chopping block and… really. Adjectives? Like color, shape, and size. Like saying brown hair or green eyes. How sparse and unimaginative that writing would be.
Like, the only sense I can come here is that maybe, sometimes, consider if you are relying on adjectives instead of interesting descriptions, such as…
The musty cave/The cave smelled musty ---> The cave smelled like a damp sponge
Her gossamer skin ---> Her skin was as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper.
(And those changes use adjectives. The real rule there is… your creative writing projects shouldn’t be about showing off all the vocabulary you memorized. It should be about creating eviseral images and emotions).
Keep your adjectives, folks. Like all things in creative writing, use them wisely, but keep your adjectives.
Hey folks, don’t take the ‘cut all your adverbs’ advice like it’s time to pull out the red pen and ink up your in progress manuscript. But also don’t ignore it totally and throw in all the adverbs.
Sometimes your adverbs will just flow and get the job done. Ex. The blood red car.
(Sometimes I think this adverb advice is really directed at -ly adverbs.)
Sometimes your adverbs/verb pairing can be turned into a stronger verb.
Sometimes your adverb means you want to focus on a detail of something, and then you should really dig into the details of something by using a more creative approach.
Sometimes in your writing you just need to get from point a to point b, and the adverb serves the purpose.
And sometimes your should cut it.
Instead of drawing blood with your editor’s pen, instead ask a series of questions:
Do you really need it? Is there a stronger option available? Can you make your writing stronger by exploring one of those stronger options?
The advice to cut all adverbs (and adjectives) is so misguided. But hidden in that advice is suggestion to give your adverbs a second look, and not to rely on fancy vocab words to convey images, imagery, and emotions.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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