I attended a national writer’s conference a few years ago and crowded into a packed audience to hear one of the top editors in the industry. “By the way,” she said during her fascinating lecture, “if you send me a manuscript with an adverb in it, let me explain what will happen. I will pull out a file labeled Lazy Writers and add your name to the list of writers I refuse to work with. Then I’ll throw your manuscript into the trash. I have no interest in working with lazy writers. Life’s too short.”
The oxygen was sucked out of the room. I heard sighs, whimpers and moans that led me to suspect that dozens of hopeful writers in that audience had just realized that their names were in her folder. Their work had slid into a black hole that most of them didn’t even know existed.
For those of you who don’t know, there is a great divide between how different colleges and universities teach writing. Some teach that an adverb is just another word to use. Others, like the instructors I studied under, live by this motto: If you see an adverb—kill it.
Here’s what Steven King said about adverbs:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The adverb debate grows around the holy grail of writing advice:
Good writing means showing, not telling.
Some schools teach that that’s true except when it comes to adverbs. It’s okay if you tell by using an adverb. On the other side of the fence are the colleges and universities which teach that you should never use adverbs, because they tell instead of showing.
For instance, you might write: …he said angrily.
Or you could remove the adverb and show the anger:
A slow red flush crept up his neck as his shoulders tensed like a lion about to leap. His eyes looked like those of a snake, cold and flat. I stepped back.
angrily happily suddenly longingly
sadly adoringly awkwardly
briskly effortlessly cheerfully stunningly
“Yeah,” one of my writing students said, “but it’s a lot quicker and easier to just say angrily.”
Thus, the title on that editor’s folder: Lazy Writers.
One takes work; the other does not.
If it matters to you, the extra work will keep your name out of the Lazy Writer file.
You can always tell if an editor approves adverbs by reading her work. A better way to say that is this: You can easily tell if an editor approves adverbs. They’ll use them obsessively, aggressively, occasionally, or constantly.
Here’s the truth though. If you’re an established, published and successful writer who uses adverbs, you can get away with it.
If, on the other hand, you’re just trying to break into the market, I urge you not to write with adverbs. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your career. You send off a manuscript with adverbs, having no idea which side of the adverb fence the editor is on. You shut your eyes, knock on wood and cross your fingers, hoping against hope that your manuscript doesn’t slide into the black hole.
To be fair, there seem to be more editors who let adverbs slide than the rabid adverb-haters. However, there are plenty of editors out there who think that using adverbs is a sure sign of laziness. They won’t announce it at a national writer’s conference. Most the time, they won’t say anything about it.
They’ll just reject your manuscript and move on to the next one.
My suggestion is that you break the adverb habit now. Why run the risk of losing even one sale? Work a little harder. Show, don’t tell.
Everything you submit to an editor is the equivalent of a job resume. If you don’t use adverbs, no one will notice. They’ll be blown away by your descriptive detail. You’ll be a bi-partisan writer. Someone who has honed her skills so well she can make editors happy on either side of the fence.
That, my friend, is using descriptive detail to pave your road to success.