Writing styles go in and out of fashion but one piece of writing advice has remained constant for a long time; the adverb taboo. Elmore Leonard wrote about the wicked adverb in his essay, 10 Rules of Writing. And just last spring I had my wrists slapped by an agent when she discovered two adverbs in my submission.
I’ll let Mr. Leonard explain the problem in his own words.
Leonard’s Rule 4
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
Leonard’s advice is sound. This mortal sin should be a simple thing to avoid, yes?
So why does this one thing so frequently plague the manuscripts of beginning writers? I have a theory.
I recently spent a year working in Fourth Grade with a team of exceptional teachers. These were the teachers that you hope and dream your children will experience. I was in heaven.
For Language Arts the teaching team (indeed the entire elementary section) subscribed to an American-made program of teaching creative writing to children. The school brought experts to run in-house workshops and sent staff members attend and become certified in that particular teaching method. All good. All wonderful, in fact. This school took the teaching of writing seriously and they did a fine job. Except for one teeny tiny thing. Adverbs. This is a story of one rotten seed being planted and taking root.
There were two natural writers in that Fourth Grade group. The first was a seriously pretty 10-year-old girl with an old soul, the gentlest of hearts and severe dyslexia. Whenever it was time to write anything she struggled to get her words onto the page but oh my, what she imagined and the stories she was able to create – with the help of a scribe – were gems. And then there was Harvard; my nickname for a 10 year old whiz kid who excelled – without effort – in everything. Science. Math. Art. Music. Creative writing.
At the start of the year Harvard’s stories hinted at potential prodigy. The stories were intricate, observant, original and with a sophistication well beyond his years. I wondered if I was witnessing the next Christopher Paoilini. As the school year progressed, however, things took a distressing turn.
While the teachers (remember these were truly exceptional teachers doing wonderful things educating children) were teaching the bones of writing – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs – they were also turning themselves inside out to find ways to stimulate more creativity in their students’ writing. Part of their teaching process was to encourage the kids to use adverbs. And… the easiest focus point for adverb use was dialogue.
Once Harvard heard this adverb advice every line of dialogue he wrote contained an adverb. Each one was carefully, often painstakingly selected. He had been taught, he’d internalized, and now he believed completely, that those adverbs would help him communicate his characters’ situation or trait in the best possible way. With the conviction of a near-zealot, he believed adverbs were necessary in every dialogue attribution. I was unable to convince him otherwise.
Now it’s a race. The use of adverbs to modify the verb “said” will not come into fashion in Harvard’s lifetime. What will happen next is what worries me. Will he find other influential teachers who will recognize and nurture his remarkable talent while gently convincing him to abandon those adverbs? Or, will come face to face with a soapbox editor, a zealot with a fat red pen who preaches about writing’s mortal sins and who crushes Harvard’s creative spirit.
My theory? We begin a child’s education teaching them to modify “said” with colorful adverbs. This becomes their norm. It’s internalized. Later, when some of them decide to be writers, it’s a nasty habit that needs to be broken. Like biting fingernails.