The Study

Red-Orange and Adverbs

If the internet opinionists are to be believed (and they aren’t allowed to publish lies on that thing, so...), fiction writers who make use of adverbs are to be summarily placed into the category of either “hack” or “amateur” or “one who makes poor life choices in general.” As if adverbs have no place in the universe of fiction-writing. I liken this to telling an artist to omit red-orange from their sunset-painting palette: “Choose either red or orange, but not both, for crying out loud. DO YOU WANT TO LOOK LIKE YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO PAINT??”

Clearly, I find this stance ridiculous. 

Granted, it can be tricky to find the right adverb to use at the right time, and it’s difficult sometimes to identify a passage that can benefit from adverbial inclusion and one that needs nothing else. But lack of knowledge regarding where and when to use them doesn’t preclude that adverbs be stricken from the ol’ authorly bag o’ tricks. I believe quite the opposite is true; there should be more and more proper use of adverbs, and shared exposure to the power of placing them strategically to enhance your writing and add nuance to your storytelling.

See the difference? “Learn to use them properly and effectively,” as opposed to “don’t use them at all.”

The sentence itself has two—count ‘em: TWO—adverbs in it.

Heresy to some; advantageous use of language to others.

Examples of poor usage that jump out at me are instances in which the original verb or adjective chosen requires no further description, or those in which further description is redundant. At first glance, a simple sentence such as “She ran quickly through the trees” appears to fit this category; if you’ve chosen to use a form of the verb “run,” it stands to reason that the character in question is going to be doing it “quickly." Otherwise, she would be ambling or skipping or walking or crawling or some other form of motion that might not inherently cry out “I’M GOING FAST HERE, PEOPLE!” It falls into the same category as “whispered softly” or “punched violently”; the adverb is practically inherent in the verb itself. There is no value added by re-describing it. 

To continue the painting analogy from above, your sunset now includes orange and orange. Or red and red.

Both are equally redundant.

Let’s tweak it a bit. Instead of saying “She ran quickly through the trees,” perhaps we could say, “She ran haphazardly among the trees.” In this instance, the adverb further describes the action being taken, which enhances the overall image by lending insight into how the character is doing what she’s doing. By virtue of omitting the adverb opportunity altogether, the sentence “She ran among the trees” becomes austere and unflavored…not that it’s wrong that way. In fact, it may actually be just what the story calls for. And “whispered urgently” is quite different from “whispered seductively,” and “punched playfully” is nothing remotely close to “punched relentlessly.” Adverbs give you those options.

And isn’t it nice to have options, just in case you as a writer feel the story calls for something more intricate?

I think it is.

Your sunset now blends right at the intersection of red and orange. 

So rather than wholly dismissing the concept of “adverb,” my advice to writers who have called into question their use of this most humble yet empowering element of the English language is this: study up on their proper usage, and use them when and where they best serve your writing and your storytelling. And when someone asks you how you crafted such a nuanced verbal sunset, you can tell them that you chose your adverbs skillfully and knowingly and purposefully.

Take that, internet opinionists.

Steven LunaComment