The Abverb Liberation Front?

Adverbs: Hate Speech Tolerated

I remember learning about adverbs in school.

Today, that prompts one of two questions. "Just how the Hell old are you, anyway?" or "What's an adverb?"

I'm old enough to know what an adverb is, and that's any word that ends in "ly." (It's more complicated than that, but there is no room for nuance.)

Adverbs are the criminals of prose. Real writers roam the streets with torches and pitchforks shouting, "Death to adverbs and the writers who use them!" Stephen King alone has killed millions. (Far fewer writers.) Editors pretend hunting down and executing all your adverbs is a wearisome task. Secret- er, possessed of a motive to hide the truth, they love the job. They keep score, you know, and boast of their kills on their private message boards. They stencil little "A's" on their desks for all I know and strive to become ace editors.

The Rules of Good Writing

Nearly every article ever written by a real writer handing down commandments for the rest of us condemns adverbs. Here are 10 rules from a New York Times article. The author, Elmore Leonard, has written 45 novels and done very well for himself. If I published three novels a year, the actuarial tables say I might live long enough to match that record. I'd be stupid not to listen to a writer with his bona fides.

But, as most have us learned a long time ago from reading articles about writing written by real writers, there's only one rule: "Write like Ernest Hemingway." You hear the call five times a day in English-speaking countries. (Elmore Leonard elsewhere credits Hemingway with contributing to his style.)

Hell, for twenty bucks your computer can fix your crappy writing with Hemingway Editor 3. The New Yorker likes it.

Beginners in any field should pay attention to experienced hands. And there are common mistakes writers should avoid. Probably talking about writing on the strength of one published novel is a big one. But since I'm one new writer blogging for other new writers and not writing for The New Yorker, I can say I'm not convinced writing well means imitating somebody else. I think writing well is making your unique voice the very best it can be in your chosen genre. If it turns out that the very best your voice can be is still suited for the shower and not the Metropolitan Opera, oh well.

Except for reliable best-selling authors, we all have day jobs or pensions. I might be able to write like Hemingway if my life depended on it. Fortunately, it doesn't. I'm an amateur in the true sense: I write because I love to write.

Even Elmore Leonard says (you'll have to judge the tone for yourself): "If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules." (Is any writer "invisible?" Do you have to be invisible to avoid being intrusive? Is the devotion to Hemingway a legacy of pre-boomer writers that is coasting along without many new writers still reading him?)

I studied journalism in college and learned to write like a journalist. I studied law in law school and learned to write like a lawyer. I was a criminal trial defense lawyer for decades and learned to pull a vivid and coherent narrative out of witnesses in front of 12 good and true who were sleepy after lunch. That's the school in which I learned to write fiction. (Go ahead. Have your little laugh about defense lawyers.)

Adverbs: Not Going Quietly

There are brave souls who defend adverbs. Here is an article from The Atlantic. Adverbs want everyone to know one thing: they are not going quietly.

True, my first submitted manuscript was filthy with adverbs. Any word that ended in "ly" got flagged. I dutiful- Sorry. With an admirable devotion to duty, I got rid of my adverbs.

And, I had to admit, I did not miss them. I learned to trust the reader to understand the quality of a verb in question from the context. (In fact, if I have grown as a writer, most of it comes from learning to trust the reader to participate in a scene: Hemingway 101.) If I real- um, was required by legitimate considerations to qualify a verb, I figured out another way to do it. Like a different verb. In time, I learned to accept, even love my adverb-less editorial overlords.

But, sometimes, I thought a sentence needed the stinking adverb.

I learned the rule, then fought for a few adverbs I still felt were necessary. So, the manuscript went back with a few comments like, "God forbid my name should ever be associated with a novel lacking this one adverb! I'd rather be burned at the stake with my manuscript by Stephen King!"

And, since my editor is sensible and kind, I did not lose too many fights. Probably because I recognized the wisdom of the rule and picked few hills to die on.

Part of becoming a better writer is learning to trust your editor, too.

The aims of the Adverb Liberation Front are modest. Adverbs agree they have been overused. It's not their fault. They don't attach themselves to  innocent verbs on their own, like leeches. Writers who don't know any better put them there. My adverbial friends resent such abuse and reject with firmness any ambition to overrun English prose.

They, will, however, happily give their lives to preserve their useful, if limited, place among their brother and sister words.  (You're welcome to read my novel and take a drink every time you find an adverb. Let me know how we did.)


  1. Thanks Tim. Good advice. I bought Hemingway Editor 3. But reading your stuff is always a lesson in good writing and many other matters.

    1. I’m interesting in learning what you think of it, Mike. I think it would drive me nuts.

  2. Papa would tell you to write hard and deep and long and when the hot day settles into night, and the moonlight glistens off the typewriter keys in the still air, do not give in to the howling adverb beast. For it is far better for the man to soak his head in saltwater to keep it clear and true and straight.

    1. lol....papa would approve, that is after drinking plenty of absinthe but only drunk just enough to be careless in the old quarter.


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