In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

The Rule: Eliminate All Adverbs

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions—Stephen King

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to eliminate all—or at least most—of the adverbs from your writing. Adverbs, especially those common ones that end in “ly”—and especially when they are used to modify dialogue tags are considered lazy writing. Better writing would describe the action conveyed by the verb interestingly and correctly (get it) rather than using a vague modifier as crutch to “tell” rather than “show” the reader the way in which the action occurs, or the dialogue is said.

Adverbs, and to a lesser extent adjectives, have been railed against (famously) by such writers as Stephen King (See the quote that kicks off this section), Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, and virtually every writing class, blog, website and workshop.

Case Study: Salman Rushdie

By any measure, Salman Rushdie is one of the most decorated writers of contemporary literature. His lists of awards, which includes the Booker, two Whitbread prizes, and a plethora of others takes up a good 6 inches on his official about the author page. He has been knighted by the queen of England, is a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, and was the subject of a prominent subplot on a (really) famous Seinfeld episode (let’s just say the episode is real and it’s spectacular). He is famous for writing magical realism, blending Eastern and Western literary traditions, and remains one of the most popular serious literary writers among the general public.

And yet…

In Midnight’s Children, arguably his most famous and decorated novel, he uses adverbs liberally. For example, in the opening paragraph of the chapter Alpha and Omega (which is one of my favorite passages in the novel), he uses multiple “ly” adverbs.

Alpha and Omega page

Later on in the same chapter, he uses more “ly” adverbs, this time (gasp!) to describe a character’s actions (first line of final paragraph.

Alpha and Omega page

When I reread these passages for this blog, I wondered if Rushdie’s use of adverbs was specific to Midnight’s Children, or if it was typical of his style, so I pulled The Satanic Verses off my shelf and took a look. I flipped through the book randomly (had enough yet?) and quickly (ok, I’ll stop now) came across this passage.

As you can see, Rushdie uses “ly” adverbs to modify here as well, this time to modify dialogue.

How could this be?

Analysis

Midnight’s Children is one of the most decorated books in recent literary history. Not only did it win a Booker, it was voted The Best of Booker—the best book among the winners in the 40 year history of the award. Clearly, Rushdie’s use of adjectives has not kept the novel from literary acclaim. So, why does Rushdie’s use of adverbs work here, when according to every piece of advice an aspiring writer is likely to receive, adverbs are bad?

Reread that first paragraph of Alpha and Omega again. Read it out loud. Listen to the rhythm. It is a beautiful paragraph, it has pace; it flows. Has Rushdie rewritten the paragraph to replace the modifiers with more descriptive language, the rhythm would not have worked as well (unless he came up with one word descriptions with the same metrical properties (syllables and stresses), he would have sacrificed the flow for the sake of so-called “better description.” Rushdie is one of the most lyrical and readable literary writers, and this paragraphs—complete with the its two prominent adverbs—is a perfect example.

Moreover, the sound in this case is, indeed, an echo to the sense. The paragraph describes uncertainty on the part of the narrator, and the ambiguity of “oddly” and “badly“ as opposed to a more specific, concrete description fits the content as well.

Additionally, the point of view is key. Rushdie, here, writes from a first-person narrative perspective. Think of the way people you know speak. They probably do not use innovative and unexpected descriptions as a regular feature of their speech. They probably do use adverbs, and one that end in “ly” at that. Thus, the narrator’s use of vague modifiers makes characterization more realistic.

All right, you say, but what about the other examples, the ones where Rushdie uses adverbs to modify his dialogue tags?

The simple answer would be to refer you back to the first blog in this series, in which I stated my belief that any style of dialogue tags—from the traditional invisible “said” tags, to the contemporary literary counter-cultural convention of not using quotation marks, to using adverbs to modify dialogue tags, becomes invisible over the course of a novel if used consistently. I would, however, be remiss is I didn’t mention Matthew Salesses, who in his book Craft in the Real World discusses how Rushdie is influenced by different, non-western literary traditions than certain other well-respected writers. I do not know enough about the eastern tradition to say for certain, but this stylistic convention may come from that source as well.

Speaking of literary traditions, Rushdie mentions Dickens and Austen as two of his major western influences. Dickens and Austen are considered, perhaps, the two greatest novelists in the history of English literature, but their writings are often used as examples of old (read outmoded) style. Modern writers tend toward a sparser, Hemingway-esque style. King’s book on writing is very (sorry, couldn’t resist) influential as well, especially among authors who aspire to write popular fiction. While there are certainly writers like Rushdie who go against the grain, their voices are often lost beneath the groupthink that Salesses derides in his book about writing instruction.

Personally, I prefer Rushdie and Dickens to King and Twain. I like a more verbose narrator, one with a real personality. You may not, and that’s a perfectly legitimate opinion. That is a matter of opinion, however, just as most of the so-called writing rules are really matters of style and trends rather than evaluations of quality.

One additional note: Even if you buy into the idea that adverbs are bad writing and that they should be replaced by better description, just replacing the adverbs does not solve the problem. When researching this blog, I did a google search for eliminating adverbs. In one of the first blogs that comes up on google, the writer suggests replacing “flirtatiously” with “she batted her eyelashes. If one is going to use cliched descriptions instead of adverbs, one weakens one’s writing by making it cumbersome and verbose. Any lengthy description can slow down pace and rhythm, an empty cliche even more so. I would focus on writing a few exciting and original descriptions and using them judiciously, at important points in the text.


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One thought on “Rules, What Rules: Eliminating Adverbs

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