To Adverb or Not to Adverb?

I’m in the midst of revisions – which is why today’s blog post is rather short – and (as always) wrestling with some of the the writerly tics that seem to invade every new manuscript. Today I faced the perennially thorny issue of adverb use, particularly when it comes to dialogue tags. I have a wonderful writing group partner who is particularly good at pointing out sloppy adverb use, highlighting all the ‘quietly/desperately/softly/angrily’ kind of dialogue slips that I have a tendency to make. She’s also very good at pointing out all the times I ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ so I’m definitely feeling rather humble at the moment:)

As with any revision process, I make a judgment call on whether to keep the dreaded adverbs and when to curtail the amount of ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ (sometimes not using an adverb actually makes the prose sound more awkward). My writing partner uses (and highly recommends) a program called ProWriting Aid, which apparently helps highlight problematic and sloppy writing but I am reluctant to go down that path for fear it will wreck my prose (or maybe I’m just afraid of all the writing errors it will illuminate!). Another writing partner ran some of her latest novel through ‘Grammarly’ with nightmarish results…which only confirmed my fears!

So my question to you all, is do you use any of these online writing aids? Have you run your prose through any of these kinds of grammar/writing checks and if so, was it helpful? How do you approach this type of stylistic revision when it comes to fiction  (up till now I’ve tended to prefer to go with my gut…) and finally – to adverb, or not to adverb, that is the question…

PS: Congratulations Jim on completing your draft of the new Mike Romeo thriller! – I’d be interested to hear if you’ve considered adding any of thee online tools to your revision process!

27 thoughts on “To Adverb or Not to Adverb?

  1. Good morning, Clare. Thanks for the interesting question. I use Grammerly.

    Speaking of adverbs…”I cut myself with the chainsaw,” he said offhandedly.

    • Ha! Do you find Grammarly picks up a lot of issues that are really more stylistic choices? I know my kids use it for school essays but after hearing about my friends horrible experience I’m reluctant:)

  2. Nope, just my poor ol’ worn out head. I strictly adhere to not allowing adverbs in dialogue tags. Anywhere else, adverbs are just another tool to use (or not) as necessary.

  3. Hi Clare. I’ve not used programs like this, so can’t really comment on the relative merits of same. I just know that for fiction, I’m intentional about style, and sentences vary accordingly. I don’t need a program telling me I’ve got an incomplete sentence here, or a run-on sentence there, etc.

    For nonfiction, they might prove helpful. I self-edit my NF via William Zinsser, whose teaching I’ve absorbed after many readings of On Writing Well. A good program could help to pick up things a well-trained newspaper editor would have in the “old days” (such editors being a dying breed today!)

    • Jim,
      I do think these editing programs can help with non-fiction but like you I am pretty intentional about many of my stylistic choices in my fiction – I think I’m just worrying now that I have some sloppy habits too…

  4. Clare, great timing for this post about adverbs b/c tomorrow I discuss adjectives.

    An early writing instructor of mine harped often about Tom Swifties.

    “I’d like to stop by the mausoleum,” Tom said cryptically.
    “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.
    “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed.

    As a result, I’m hyper-conscious of adverbs and almost never use them.

    Just for laughs, here are more examples:

  5. As with most writing rules, cutting adverbs isn’t absolute. For example, here’s Raymond Chandler:

    “A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step.”

    “Casually” gives a vivid impression of Moose Malloy’s frightening strength.

    • Mike
      Good point – and I do find that sometimes a well placed adverb gives the exact impression I want and flows better in context rather than a detailed gesture or movement. I’m no Chandler though (sadly)…

  6. I always think, better to use adverbs in my first draft than to replace ‘said’ with something pathetic. Also, when I’m writing my first draft, my body language dictionary shrinks to just sighing and smiling.

  7. I don’t use online editing tools, Clare. The ones I’ve tried in the past ruined my story rhythm. For example, a staccato sentence used to increase suspense. Grammarly and the like don’t understand the subtle nuances of fiction writing.

  8. I use ProWritingAid, although I wait until I’m close to the finish line to run the ms through. it identifies overused words, passive voice, adverb usage, etc. But like you, Clare, I’m sensitive to the cadence and rhythm of the prose. I use ProWritingAid as a tool, but I’m not married to its suggestions.

    My entry in the Tom Swifty contest:

    “Trim those adverbs,” she said cuttingly.

  9. Good morning, Clare. I have used ProWriting Aid, with both my last novel as well as a short story and some non-fiction. I emphasize the “aid” part of the name, using it as an assistant, but ultimately I need to go with what I feel works for my style and what I’m writing. I think it’s most useful to help with copy editing and proofing. Line editing is a tricker, more subjective manner IMHO.

    Good luck with your rewrite!

  10. Hi Clare! Interesting and relevant writing topic you subjectively dragged up this morning. I spent a couple years writing commercial web content – full time and puking out boring drivel after yawning trivia. To keep up with the shipping deadlines, I ran each article through Grammarly Premium which was great for cleaning things like spelling, punctuation, formatting, and of course grammar. I’ve let the paid-for version lapse, but I still run pieces through the freebie app Grammarly gives out. However, I’ve never let a writing aid steal the voice.

    BTW, I’s flirted around with some of the others – ProWriting Aid, Autoctrit, Marlowe, etc but nuthin’ – and I say nuthin’ – beats a sharp-eyed, old cutthroat human proofreader. And, as Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I got to say about that.”

  11. Many of these programs are aimed at nonfiction so I’ve never trusted them or suggested them for newer fiction writers. After seeing what one did to “The Gettysburg Address,” I can’t say I’d recommend them for anything but business letters.

    Dialog tags are a landmine newer authors blithely tromp on. I always suggest physical business to show emotion instead of “she said angrily.” If that character is currently mauling a piece of paper like she wants to throttle someone, it’s pretty dang obvious she’s furious. Plus, if the reader needs to be told the character is angry, the scene or the character up to this point hasn’t been fleshed out enough.

    Trust your readers to pick up the nuances, folks. They ain’t stupid.

  12. I’m have to go back and redraft constantly and I want to stop that bad habit. I’ve written with ProWritingAid after seeing it on the Creative Penn blog. Although I’m about 5 or 6 weeks into using the program, I feel more at ease with what I’m producing now.

    But I have to admit it’s changing my style. I can certainly see veterans not wanting that. But being a newbie author, it’s helping me 100%.

    There is an outstanding feature in there to that can check for glue words. Not going to go deep on the subject, but I feel like I’m on to something when I check my prose. I think Sue C was calling me out to write tight and looking at the glue word analysis is a way to get there.

  13. I’m with Humpty-Dumpty: The question is, who is to be master, that’s all. Nothing wrong with writing adverbally if it gets the job done.

    As for tools, spelling checkers can be tamed without too much work by adding new words to their dictionaries, but grammar checkers are pretty bad. I use Grammarly for nonfiction because it’ll flag non-spelling-related blunders, but its false-positive rate is high. For fiction, it’s pretty hopeless; I’m just as glad that there isn’t a Grammarly plugin for OpenOffice, which is what I compose on.

  14. No tools.

    Adverbophobia can result in awkward or silly construction. There are times when only an adverb will do. It’s best, of course, to incorporate the descriptor in the verb, itself. We don’t say ‘He ran quickly down the hall’ when we can say, ‘He sped down the hall.’ But not every verb has synonyms with such subtleties. “Rowed” might be an example, as in, “Mungo rowed powerfully down the river.” Can you suggest a synonym for row that will economically and unambiguously incorporate a degree of effort? (I’ve got a possible candidate.)

    There are ways to communicate the degree of effort expended, but not every situation merits a long description of Mungo’s rippling muscles, perspiration, grunts, etc. Sometimes we just want him to row the boat swiftly.

    Worst of all is trying to avoid an adverb by using an adverbial phrase. “He rowed down the river in a strenuous way.”

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