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On Adverbs (and Advice)

Someone asked me if I'd write a blog post about adverbs. I was really excited. I mean, not about adverbs so much, about someone who'd read my writing asking me to write something else.

The problem is, I don't have much to say about adverbs - not enough for a whole blog post. Does anyone?

I've been trying to write books and writing books for a pretty long time. I also write songs.

I remember talking to my friend who is a professional musician, singer, songwriter, about wanting to play some songs for an audience, and he said, don't just play covers; write your own songs.

So I took his advice. He was an expert and I didn't know anything at all (this was maybe 20 years ago). I wrote a song and played it to an audience who seemed to understand it and like it - wrote a bunch more songs.

The thing about songs is, they kind of need an audience to work. I've written a lot of songs now and played them to a lot of people (though not usually very many people at a time). I've been to song-writing workshops where everyone sits in a circle and takes turns to play their song while everyone else listens. And do you know what? You can learn something about a person from listening to a song they wrote that you can't learn any other way.

Songs are music. Music is a sociable thing.

In lockdown, I found that without an audience to play to, there was no point writing any songs, so I stopped. When you play your song you are expressing your thoughts to others, and you get an immediate response. You can tell what they think. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they frown, sometimes they tap their foot, or whatever. Sometimes they look at their phone or chat to their mates or go out for a fag. It all means something. Sometimes they might even cry.

I went to a folk club to play one time - drove over an hour to get there by myself, kind of scary (I hate driving at night). I found my way in and I didn't know anyone, but people said hello, were polite. I listened to some songs and tunes, and then I played two songs. And after that I suddenly had a small crowd of new friends who wanted to talk to me because they had understood and liked what I was saying with my music. It was the start of a conversation.

Writing books and stories is not like that.

Writing books is something you do all by yourself for a very long time, usually.

I wrote three books before I showed any of my writing to anyone. It might have taken me fifteen years to write those three books (I'm not sure because I can't remember when I started writing).

When I finally took a deep breath and showed a book I wrote to some people I knew, most of them did not want to read it.


It was a beautiful story. It was entertaining. It was magical.

That didn't matter.

It was also not particularly edited and probably kind of confusing, but that didn't matter either.

It was LONG. That book has 105,000 words in it and it takes around eight hours to read.

Takes three minutes to listen to a song.

It turns out, the only people who want to read your unproven, unpublished book (apart from your mum) are other unpublished, unproven writers. And even then, that's a maybe.

If you join a critique group, or a beta reading partnership, people will read your writing in exchange for you reading theirs. That's fair, right?

And then they will sharpen their claws and lick their lips, and they will give you advice.

When I finally decided I wanted to be friendly and started looking around on social media for writers and about writing I found a whole tsunami of advice in articles, blogs, Facebook groups, YouTube channels. I read/watched a ton of it.

And, you know, I don't get it.

Unproven, unpublished writers telling other writers how to write.

Everyone wants to be in the role of expert. Writers want to build their audience so they create a website, write a blog, but the only thing they can think of to write about, it seems, is how to write. Problem with this is the audience are also writers, so don't they know how to write already? Don't they have their own writing blog filled with their own advice?

I learned to write by reading books (and I don't mean books about writing) and trying to write books and writing books.

I haven't read many books about how to write because I don't want to program myself into thinking that writing is about following rules. I don't think there ARE any rules.

If you don't agree with that, it's fine. I'm not an expert, am I?

Don't listen to MY advice.

Stephen King says you shouldn't use adverbs. Except I'm not sure he ever actually said that. I don't know really though - I've never read any of his books.

Stephen King might not have said it, but lots of other people do.

I don't think it's good advice.

I mean, adverbs are a word class, like verbs and nouns and such. To eliminate an entire word class from ones vocabulary seems to me unlikely to ENHANCE communication. Imagine if you took out all the nouns, or all the verbs.

And if we're getting rid of adverbs, do we ditch adverbial phrases too? Aren't they the same thing?

Then you would never be able to explain that you drove your car into a lamppost. Or that you went to the dentist last Tuesday.

I think adverbs are are useful as any other type of word - they provide meaning.

Driving your car into a lamppost deliberately, is different from doing so recklessly or accidentally.

Have you heard the one where they say that instead of using an adverb, you should use a more powerful verb?

Example: instead of 'ran quickly' use 'sprinted' or 'dashed'.

Would anyone ever actually think of writing the phrase 'ran quickly' in the first place though? I mean, really?

Perhaps what Stephen King and his followers mean is that it's OK to use adverbs, as long as you don't use them BADLY (oops). But then, it's probably better not to use any kind of word badly, if you're a writer.

I do take people's advice sometimes, if they are an expert, or have relevant experience that I don't have, and if I have a reason to trust them. I can TRY their advice - and if it doesn't work it's not their fault, is it?

But I don't like to GIVE advice, unless someone asks me to write a blog post about adverbs.

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Naomi, I think we’ve all been given that advice and you’re right, it’s not about avoiding them but overusing them. Finding an appropriate verb that makes the adverb unnecessary can be great but sometimes you really prefer it because of the flow of the words - just as in poetry and in songwriting. I loved the article most because Twitter reduces conversation to a minimum. I felt like I got to know you better by reading your article, thank you.


Naomi Lane
Naomi Lane

I couldn’t agree with you more on this. I don’t think adverbs are inherently bad and I also think there’s too much time spent on reading other people’s advice instead of just writing in your own style and then getting some feedback afterwards. We are two like-minded Naomis. ( I have never written this name as a plural before. Are plural names bad too?)

Naomi Rose
Naomi Rose

Nothing is bad. I'm sure I've followed another writing Naomi on twitter as well as you. Plenty of Naomis around, it seems.


Very interesting point about the amount of time it takes to read a book vs listen to a song. In fact, you don't even have to "count" the time when the song is playing in the background while you're, say, cooking dinner or something.

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