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Scott Lax Blog

Don't Fear the Adverb

One of the things that many students learn in the MFA factories and writing workshops around the country is never use adverbs. Like the dreaded exclamation point, banishing adverbs to the hinterlands of middle-school essays has become de rigueur for anyone wanting to write serious fiction.

Instead of telling you the problem with those hard-and-fast rules of unpublished professors, let me give you an excerpt from a novel. The game is “spot the adverb and name the author”:

“There’s something funny about a fellow that’ll do a thing like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”

“Who doesn’t,” I inquired.

“Gatsby. Somebody told me –”

The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidently.

“Somebody told me he killed a man.”

A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.

“I don’t think it’s so much that,” argued Lucille skeptically; “it’s more than that he was a German spy during the war.”

One of the men nodded in confirmation.

“I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany, he assured us positively.”

Wow!, if you’ll excuse the exclamation point. In that small excerpt from “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we find a “confidentially,” a “skeptically,” two instances of “eagerly,” and a “positively.” That’s five adverbs – which is five more than many creative writing students are allowed by their profs in total.

What are we to make of that? First, I think that fashions have changed, and maybe one of the greatest novels in American literature could have used a bit more editing. On the other hand, Fitzgerald wasn’t an MFA product – he used the best words he could think of to suit the purpose of the sentence, which in turn suits the purpose of the story. He didn’t worry that someone in a writers’ workshop was going to admonish him because of some adverbs.

My advice to fiction writers is this: if adverbs suit you and your style, use them with care. Don’t toss them out the window just because they’re out of fashion. Words – lots and lots of words – are there for you to use.

If you can show the action instead of using an adverb, that’s usually a good idea.
For F. Scott Fitzgerald, though, he apparently needed to keep the story moving, and he wanted the reader to know – yes, by telling a bit, not simply showing (breaking yet another "rule") - that a character’s actions were confident, or skeptical, or eager, or positive.

The moral of this story? Be yourself, and write as well as you can. But if you try to please workshop participants, or a teacher or professor who has lots of rules about what you should and shouldn’t write, you’ll drive yourself nuts. Or put another way: Adverbs don’t kill stories, bad writing does.

I don’t use many adverbs. But on the rare instances when I do, I use them...happily.
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