I took a creative writing course at my first college. I dropped it later, because the professor didn’t know how to actually teach creative writing. That’s not to say that I knew what I was doing; I’d been writing since I was eleven, and by the time I took this professor’s class I was told by one professional author and another English professor that I was publishable, but I (today) wouldn’t consider myself (then) to know what I was talking about any more than that professor. I learned far more from the assigned texts than I did from her.

The problem with many creative writing courses is that they spend a lot of time teaching you what not to do rather than what you should do. That’s a lot easier, I suppose; as I frequently say, writing is an art, not a science. There are a few ways to fail, and an near-infinite number of ways to succeed. It’s easier to talk about what not to do. The problem is that these courses go on and on with their rules rather than treating it as an art form. When I teach writing, I actually approach it the same way one might teach drawing or painting: here’s some stuff to try, and here’s how to refine it. The rules of fiction aren’t the laws of physics.


One such rule, which this professor was quite strict on, is one that many of you will no doubt have heard. Don’t use adverbs. The professor in question was even more specific: “Don’t use -ly words.” Whether she didn’t care about adverbs that didn’t end in -ly or she just thought we didn’t know what an adverb was, I don’t know; it could honestly have gone either way. (You can tell I didn’t enjoy that class.) 

On the face of it, such a rule is a good training tool. Adverbs don’t give a lot of information, and almost never give immersive information. Adverbs can and should be used, but when teaching creative writing it’s not a bad idea to tell students to find other ways to express ideas. It’s the writing equivalent of training with weights on. One of the boys on my sister’s high school swim team, for example, would do all his practices in the baggiest set of swim-shorts he could find, to increase his drag; competitions, of course, were done in normal racing briefs. Work harder when training so that it’s easier in the final result.

The problem is that if you don’t explain the concept to the students, you wind up with the idea that adverbs should never be used. Adverbs are useful tools, but there’s an “everybody says it” rule out there that makes it out to be some sort of writing sin.

The other extreme, of course, is using it too much. I was reading a book recently (and couldn’t finish it; when I read, I want to feel like I’m not on the clock as an editor) where the author used adverbs all over the place. He used one in particular about 80% of the time: “inwardly.” “He cursed inwardly.” “He sighed inwardly.” “He laughed inwardly.” (The worst two were “He swallowed inwardly” and “He thought inwardly.” How do you swallow or think inwardly, if that’s somehow different from what one normally does?)

This is something I come across quite frequently (heh, there’s one!) in my work. Some authors don’t have a problem with it, and others do. When editing Elizabeth‘s The Mermaid and the Unicorn, for example, I don’t remember ever having to correct that. Ditto for Lori’s The Coyote and the Crow. Others (naming no names, but they’ll probably remember) have had lots of suggestions on how to make their prose sound better by replacing uninteresting adverbs.

The one thing that these authors have in common, as far as I can tell, is whether they’ve been taught how to write multi-layered prose; that is, prose that can pack the most information into the smallest number of words. The admonition to use as few words as you can doesn’t mean to lower your word-count at all costs. It’s about efficiency, and efficiency sometimes requires using more words, not less. Mystery writers in particular cultivate this skill, as it helps when seeding clues in the text without drawing too much attention to them before their time. That also means that any author who uses mystery techniques (such as Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher, or Jo Rowling) benefit from this concept as well.

I’ll give two examples, both from one of my students’ work. I used her piece as an example on the subject for the whole class, because she had used adverbs in both ways in the same scene.

In the first example, one character entered the scene “enthusiastically.” What is the audience supposed to picture? A “ta-da” moment? Bubbling over with laughter? Acting like a kid on Christmans morning? Rubbing his hands with glee? A Broadway dance sequence?

We went over several ways to better describe what she was trying to tell the reader, but you can see right there what I was talking about in terms of efficiency. A description that isn’t clear to the reader doesn’t convey the information you want. It causes spillage, so to speak, as the reader tries to determine what was actually going on.

Two pages later, my student had the dialog tag “Robert laughed, a bit more naturally than before.” This is a case when an -ly adjective is absolutely the most efficient way to convey the information. We immediately picture Robert relaxing, smiling, and not being on his guard. He’s gone from tense conversation a few paragraphs earlier to a more comfortable state.

The reason here is that we know what natural laughter sounds like, and all the body language that goes with it. A forced laugh is controlled, restrained; the muscles in his lower face (mouth and cheeks) would be tight, while those in his upper face (forehead and around the eyes) would be slack. His body would be stiff, and he would be thinking about all of his movements so that he wouldn’t give a betraying detail (which itself shows an unnatural state, as a relaxed person tends to have unconscious movement, particularly in the legs and hands). As he relaxes, he’ll lean back in his seat, adjust his legs, make small gestures with his hands, and his entire face would be engaged in conveying emotion.

All of that comes from the word “naturally,” because we instinctively understand the context. That is how adverbs can and should be used. Avoiding adverbs too much can lead to what’s called “purple prose,” a phrase that refers to using unnecessarily flowery or emotional description. Purple prose is description that calls attention to itself, rather than to the thing it describes. Judicious use of adverbs can help cut down on that, so long as you don’t get spillage.

The last thing I should note on this subject is that you shouldn’t obsess over whether you’re being properly efficient on your first draft. Your first draft is about one thing and one thing only: get the story down. Once you know how it’s supposed to happen, then you can go back and put in all the tweaks necessary to get your point across.

As you do so, read it out loud and think about how it would seem to someone encountering it for the first time. Is there spillage? Will the reader know exactly what you meant, or is there room for confusion or alternate interpretation? If the latter, is there a more efficient way to describe the same thing, even if it uses a few more words?

At the other end, is that the best way to describe it? Does your character come across as too emotional, not enough, or displaying the wrong attitude for the subject at hand? Body language is a great way to convey information, but if your character is moving a lot he or she might come across as fidgety, or the description might get in the way of the story itself. If you removed the description, would the reader still understand what’s going on?

If you’re unsure, then describe it another way, as if to someone who doesn’t get it. If that description seems better, use it. If you can’t, don’t obsess; or mark it for an alpha reader to look over for a second opinion.

If you take nothing else away from this essay, then at least understand this: whenever someone says there is something you should never do when writing, take it with a few shakes of salt. Most of the time, such people are full of it. Creative writing is creative. There are few ways to do art wrong, and many ways to do it right.

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