Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lawrence Wrote Confusedly and Hotly

Writers are constantly being told to avoid using adverbs in our prose, and to delete any adverbs we find while editing/revising. We're told that adverbs are "weak writing" and the mark of an amateur and I'm sure that a lot of us follow this advice and use as few adverbs as we can, but I'm not so sure that a lot of us understand why using adverbs is weak writing, and what adverbs actually do to our prose to weaken it.

Although I am officially on a sabbatical from the Literary Lab, I have been reading D. H. Lawrence's novel "Women In Love" and I saw within Lawrence's pages what the problem with adverbs is and I wanted to talk about it so here I am, posting.

I could say any number of things about Lawrence's book (both good and bad), but the thing that struck me most last night when I was reading is that he larded his sentences with adverbs. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that every line of dialogue has a tag containing an adverb. Gudrun replies angrily to Gerald who responds haughtily while Ursula speaks tenuously to Rupert who declines to say anything, walking determinedly by her but at some distance, carefully and thoughtfully. Et cetera. And it goes on like that, honestly, for hundreds of pages. (There are also moments of sheer brilliance and beauty, which mostly balance Lawrence's clunky sentences.)

Anyway, all of this use of the adverb does two things which I think weaken the prose. First, it burdens the reader not only to decide what is meant by "haughtily" or "tenuously" or "determinedly" but also to keep track of these shifting emotional states that fly by and change often. Like most writers who lean heavily on adverbs, Lawrence uses a lot of them and after a while they begin to blur and lose all of their meaning. What is anyone feeling in the example I used above? I have no idea. Which leads to the second way in which adverbs can weaken prose: they are claims, not events.

What I mean by that is the same old "show, don't tell" you've been hearing since you first put pen to paper and wrote your first story. "Gudrun replies angrily" has no emotional weight for either the character or the reader. It doesn't move us and you might as well have not written it for all the good it does you as a story-teller. "I spent the day unhappily" is vague, formless and neutral. It ups your wordcount and does little else.

What adverbs too often do is replace action in stories. Anything that reduces the amount of meaningful dramatized action in a story is bad. Anything that reduces the amount of meaningful dramatized action in a story is bad. Yes, that bore repeating. Do not, therefore, tell us that Gudrun replies angrily. Show us her anger, with her words or her actions. Gudrun can let us know she's angry the same way she lets Gerald know she's angry. She probably does not say "I am speaking to you angrily." So don't you say that either, unless you intend some comic effect.

Sometimes we want to summarize, and adverbs do that for action. "He walked quickly" is shorthand for a description of someone walking in a rapid manner and if you're just hurrying the story along, that's fine. But the quick walking will not have any impact on the reader, so if this is an important moment and you want it to have impact, don't use weak writing. Use your strongest writing, and your strongest writing will be clear and direct and have distinct form and meaning. Strong writing is concrete and tactile, visual and immediate. Even a writer like Proust, who is characterized (mostly by people who've never read him, I think) as having written a lot of dreamy and pointless stuff, used very memorable and concrete images whenever people were acting, and he showed character emotions in a direct way (a man doesn't just lecture his friend "angrily," for example, but instead beats a tophat to bits in a fit).

So anyway, that's why adverbs are weak writing and why you should avoid them most of the time. The fact that D.H. Lawrence wrote some classics of the English language and his prose was clunky and choked with adverbs is not an excuse for your prose to be equally clunky unless you also have Lawrence's particular gifts to balance that clunkiness. I am looking for a closing joke that uses an adverb, but I've got nothing, sadly.

And I am still on sabbatical (because life is very busy right now) and may not have time at all to read/respond to comments. Have a lovely day anyway.


  1. Great post Scott. I also think what makes adverbs so weak is that they're generic. Speaking "softly" for one character might be no more than a whisper. But for a different character, speaking "softly" might be awkward for them, and make them nervous and shaking. Adverbs leave out the specific details that make characters unique and our writing vivid.

  2. Heh. Adverbs can be good for comic relief. Thanks for continuously pointing out the usual what-not-to-dos while addressing exceptions and gray areas.

    Aren't there times, though, when it is OK to use an adverb (not two in every sentence) even if you're not as brilliant as D.H. Lawrence?

    Workshop time... I have an adverb in the first paragraph of Chapter 5 of my WIP. Can anybody help out--Is this adverb (unpleasantly) uncalled for, and if so, can anyone suggest a better wording?

    "'She will grow up too fast.' Hildegard watched Rosemarie eat her supper and wondered if the riding lessons and time spent out in the garden had been too much. It seemed that every time she turned her back, the girl grew an inch taller and two inches wider in the bust and hips. True, she had lost her air of melancholy, but she had acquired a spark in her eye and a flashing heat to her moods that reminded Hildegard unpleasantly of King Eduard in his waking years."

  3. Ach, it all comes down to the proper choice of words. I know "said" is the be all and end all of dialogue tags, but sometimes "snapped" or "spat" are better at conveying anger than "said angrily."

    And walking quickly... we've got "hurried," "jogged," "sprinted," "sometimes running, sometimes walking," and things like that. It's the strong verbs that make the prose, not weak ones with adverbial support.

    Create action. Root emotion in the physical. Make your readers shoulders tense along with your character's. That's where all the fun is for me as a writer anyway.

  4. Genie: I think you have a point about it sometimes being okay to use adverbs. I use them sometimes, although each time I use one I pause and ask myself if it's necessary. I like to put them in dialogue at times, although I do over-use the word REALLY all the time.

    I would say you do not need "unpleasantly" in there if the reader knows anything about King Eduard from earlier in the story. Is he is introduced as an unpleasant character earlier? If so, there shouldn't be any need to repeat yourself (something I do quite often). I think the paragraph already implies that Rosemarie's changes are not pleasant to Hildegard. Still, I think I'd have to read more of the story to be sure. It's difficult to give an informed opinion on only a snippet. And remember, mine is just that - an opinion. :)

    Mr. Bailey: I've read Lawrence, but I don't remember his prose being so overladen. I probably wasn't looking for it and was rushing through the book for a college class, so who knows.

    One thing I should do for my writing is search for all my -ly words and see if they necessary.

  5. I read a wonderful "first page" yesterday that the author requested critique on. Never one to shy from such things, I noticed that when I covered the adverbs with my finger, the text was even better.

    What I told him was that sometimes writers use adverbs because they don't trust the reader to understand what they are saying, so they throw in clarifying words that actually do the opposite. Readers don't need hand-holding and everything described to the nth detail.

    Also what's the deal with using adjectives as adverbs? Is that supposed to be artsy or something?
    ex: The cannon blasted sudden and loud.
    You can drop the -ly I guess but it doesn't make it less adverbial and more literary. Or improve the sentence. You know what works? Nouns as verbs.
    The cannon shrapneled its contents against the enemy soldiers.
    Or not. :)

  6. Andrew: Yes! Nouns as adverbs! And nouns as verbs, too! Hell, let's just use nouns for everything. Look, art:

    "The cannon shrapneled a noise explosion blast of ammunition at the enemy march."

    Genie: Sometimes adverbs are fine. But I like what Simon said about how writers will buttress weak verbs with adverbs, and as Andrew points out, this actually waters down the prose instead of clarifying it. Also, I agree with Michelle that "unpleasantly" can just be cut. You could, you know, show Hildegard responding to the unpleasant reminders, in a dramatized scene. That would have far more impact on the reader than simply making a claim about Hildegard. One of the things I'm going to do when I revise the novel I just wrote is go through and cut out all of the "he was like this..." and "she was like this..." passages and replace them with scenes.

    Rick & Matt: Wittily wrought.

    Lisa: Exactly, adverbs aren't verbs and are not specific. I think people add them in when they realize that their prose doesn't say what they want it to say, but it doesn't help most of the time.

    Michelle: Not all of Lawrence's writing is like this. "Rockinghorse Winner" and other short stories are lean and beautifully written. I think that in "Women in Love" he was trying to write about people in a new way and wasn't really sure how to go about it; an experiment that doesn't quite work.

    I will also say that possibly someone could write a short story that is nothing but a string of adverbs, and that such a story could be a wondrous, shining work of art. I'm not the writer for that task, but it's within the realm of possibility. So it's not adverbs that are the enemy, but our lazy use of them. They are frequently the symptom of a deeper problem.

  7. Scott: I agree that they can be a sign of a deeper problem. This is why I loathe "THE RULES", if you will. Adverbs for one writer may work beautifully, but in the hands of another writer, they fall apart and destroy the work. We are all different, and I often feel that only the most solid grammatical rules should be rigidly followed. Now I keep scanning even my comments for adverbs. Oh, this rule trap is irritating.

  8. Michelle: I use adverbs. I use them all the time. Adverbs aren't the enemy, if we use them properly. The thing to avoid is using them instead of using vivid language. I think that adverbs can increase the specificity of verbs and that can be a good thing. "Painstakingly" is a good adverb in the right context. So is "very."

  9. Thanks, Lady G and Scott. I think you're both right. King Eduard was introduced previously as a very unpleasant character, so I doubt the reader will forget that.

    I'm now picking through my draft and circling adverbs here and there that don't add anything necessary, and also rewriting a few pieces, mostly chapter openings, where I can show instead of tell.

    This is basic stuff I already "know," but it sure does help to have a reminder once in awhile.

  10. Genie: I know that when we're creating characters, it's better to show something to the reader and let them figure it out than it is to just make a claim about the characters, but in first drafts especially, I find myself using a kind of shorthand where I'll write in claims about characters and then I get used to those passages being there (see yesterday's post from Davin about this very thing) and I have to force myself to go back in and exchange scenes for these assertions. It's a lot of work, and it's easy to let it slide, but as Mighty Writers we choose to do that work. So good on you.

  11. @Scott: LOL

    I was going to one-up that one but I don't think I can.

    Adjectives as verbs?

    The cannon redded and deaded the enemy men.


  12. I am guilty of not really knowing how to use 'most' adverbs correctly, which is why in my work it would be rare to see anything close to 'angrily'. In this case I would used an action to show the degree of anger. As my skills as a writer increase, hopefully, I can master using adverbs when appropriate.

  13. Great discussion going on here, and thanks Genie for posting up some of your writing! I agree with Scott and Michelle and the adverb isn't necessary, but it's also something I wouldn't have minded at all if I came across it.

    I have a rule for my own adverbs that hasn't been covered here. If the adverb is unexpected and/or original, then I often tend to keep it. Of course I won't be able to come up with a decent example now, but phrases like "She shouted operatically" or "He ate cruelly" might be things I kept. I think readers appreciate the surprises.

  14. Davin: John Gardner once said that adverbs were only allowable if they were surprises; I think he'd accept your examples.

    Anyway, the main thing is, as always, to write using vivid, concrete language. Unless vague or confused or confusing is what you want (which, you know, sometimes it is and that's fine too, as long as it's deliberate).

    Tangentially, I am attempting to free my writing of similes. Success has been limited.

  15. I think it boils to to use vs. mis-use and/or over-use. The same is true with passive voice.

    Try this:

    Pick two novels from your bookshelf (or floor, depending on your organizational style), open each to a random spot, and scan the two pages in each book for adverbs and passive voice. I bet you'll find something.

  16. There are times when an adverb hits the spot nicely.

    WhatI've noticed when editing, it's absolutely meaningful to leave them out, period. I usually do a find on 'ly'

    Thanks for the reinforcement. Sometime a person gets lazy.

  17. This whole discussion is great. All you people crack me up and make me think at the same time.

    I don't know what has happened to me since my early 20s, when I was always anxious and self-conscious about my writing, slamming the computer screen down if anyone walked by. Now, I'm aware that I make big mistakes in my writing, but I'm no longer ashamed. I just want to make it better, and I feel confident that I can.

    All the posters and commenters on this blog have been extreme-LY helpful.

    I like what Davin and Scott said about surprising adverbs being OK. That makes sense, because a surprising adverb would necessarily be adding information, not just repeating or muddling it.

    Scott, you're about as good at taking your "sabbatical" as I am good at not checking your blog while at work. LOL! But thanks for sharing your insights.

  18. Must be my age but when a discussion of adverbs comes up I always think of "Swifties". Does that make me a sick person? And I'm not using "sick" in a good way.

  19. Really good post, Scott. And I think we writers, who've had the anti-adverb ideal drummed into us, seem to notice overuse of adverbs more so than others reading the same book. And the truly unnecessary adverbs stick out worst of all.

    "Hear, hear!" he shouted loudly with his arms flailing vertically rapidly.


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