Adverbily Yours (She Signed Saucily)

If you’re the type of broad who’s trying to make a go of it as a serious writer, I’d venture to guess that there’s a chance you’re terrified of adverbs. If you ever took a course on short fiction (or worse, short-short fiction), I have a feeling it’s quite possible that adverbs feel like curse words to you – and not the kind of curse words that make you feel great and badass to say; the kind of curse words that just sort of pop out of your mouth at inappropriate moments in front of the wrong people. Like, you know, saying ‘balls’ in front of your sweet old grandmother, on accident.

Or, you know, accidentally saying ‘balls’ in front of your sweet old grandmother.

I live in fear of adverb slippage. Letting an adverb out in a piece of short ficiton has come to feel like the writer’s equivalent of being an actress and having your boobs pop out on a red carpet event (stay with me here, I know I’m just a few paragraphs in and have already said ‘boobs’ and ‘balls,’ but I’m going somewhere with this). This fear of adverbs goes back to an introductory fiction course I took in undergrad where, prior to the lesson on, ‘hey guys, don’t use adverbs,’ we turned in pieces to our professor, and she circled every adverb on the page before returning them to us. And then wrote the number. And circled the number. Ouch. (To her defense, I think she had mixed our class up with another class in which she *had* covered the adverb faux-pas a week prior, but that critique still stings to this day.)

And I get it, I truly do. Why say ‘he whispered quietly,’ when we all know that the word ‘whispered’ implies the ‘quietly’ bit? It’s drilled into our brains that adverb-use is a lazy writer’s coverup. “Oh, sorry editor, I didn’t have time to find the word ‘shouted,’ so ‘said loudly’ was just going to have to work.”

But I know that adverbs have their place. They must, or they wouldn’t be something we dedicate lessons to in school. (Although, I admit it made me a little bitter to have learned how to use adverbs only to be later told that I *shouldn’t* be using them. Confusing!) The problem is, how on earth do you know when you’re doing it right?

Okay. I know. Writing is subjective. What one person enjoys, makes another person cringe. Somewhere out there is a dude who just waits for adverbs to slip themselves into sentences. Somewhere, there’s a dude who’s mad at our writing professors for shaming us into a lack of adverb-age, and I’m sure he views each and every ‘happily’ and ‘excitedly’ like an old friend returning from the war.

But for those of us who are just average people without boners for adverbs (I am so, SO sorry about the lack of naughty-language-filter I’m employing tonight, by the way), there’s a fine line of adverb use. And where do we draw the line?

Personally (haha!), I think genre and point of view have a lot to do with this. I primarily write YA, and I always write in first person. This leads my narrators to use more adverbs than I immediately feel comfortable with – they’re teenage girls, and everything is ‘totally’ and ‘really’ and ‘seriously’. Were my characters lawyers or introspective astrophysicists, they wouldn’t talk that way. But they’re not. They’re teenage girls who get a little overdramatic a lot of the time. They also shrug and sigh and make lists about ‘must-have’ qualities in boys they want to date. Seriously.

How do I know too many ‘totallys’ are too many? I don’t. I try to go with what feels natural. (Just for my own curiosity’s sake, I totaled these up in my present WIP: we’ve got 42 ‘totally’s, 18 ‘seriously’s, and 34 ‘absolutely’s across a 76,000 word novel. So yeah, maybe some of those could go, but they make up a percentage of a percentage of the words in the book.) Should my book fall into the hands of an editor, and should she ask me to cut out some of my girls’ Valley-speak (I mean, they’re totally not that Valley… err… nevermind), I wouldn’t fight her. Or, I wouldn’t fight her too much. But they don’t feel like they’re cluttering up the text, just giving a little piece of style to the voice of the girls, who are absolutely the coolest gals I’ve ever written.

I’m curious as to what other writers think about this. Since I don’t read by e-book, it’s hard for me to look at other comparable books and see where they stand (I’m not so curious about this question that I’m going to go through all the Beautiful Creatures books and highlight adverbs), but I do wonder. What rules do you have about adverbs? Do you try to avoid them at all costs, or do you embrace them when the moment strikes? Do you find yourself using them more when writing certain genres than when writing others? Are you also an almost-30-year-old who just realized, while writing a blog post, that she might still speak like a 19-year old? And if so, do they have support groups for broads like us?

Graciously, Curiously, Absolutely Totally Sincerely Yours,
Fox

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