Monday, August 10, 2009

In Defense of Literary Stepchildren

OR: Why does everybody hate adverbs and passive voice so damn much?

These are two hard and fast rules in "good writing." Adverbs and passive voice are lazy, sloppy, unprofessional, and will ruin your work even though they are grammatically correct.

Okay, who came up with this arbitrary prejudice? I can guess where the antagonism towards adverbs started and it probably is rooted in lazy writing. Observe:

"I want you now, my darling," Fabio whispered breathlessly.
"We can't! O my lover, the evil Stephan will kill you," Victoria murmured fearfully.
"I will defend you. You are mine," he said fiercely.
"Oh, yes. I am yours, lover. Take me now!" she said recklessly.

Many dialogue tags and adverbs to describe the dialogue. BORING. And trite. They should be saying and doing things that cue the reader into the mood. But really, there are only eight parts of speech. Do we have to engage in the wholesale slaughter of one of them just because lazy writers use it as a crutch? That's bad writing. It shouldn't be contending for publication anyway. Meanwhile, a decent story with better writing is getting axed by an agent or editor whose anti-adverb policy is Pavlovian. Once you've trained your eye to look for them they are all that you see.

To adverb or not to adverb? It's basically (uh-oh! adverb!)Faulkner vs. Hemingway. And dammit, I like Faulkner better. But clearly (oops...another adverb!) there is a place for both.

Then there are passive voice and being verbs. Essentially, the subject of the sentence is acted upon or just IS something instead of performing an action. Most of the time a sentence can be restructured to better effect by eliminating passive voice. I get that. For example:

I was hit in the skull with the baseball.
The baseball careened into my skull with bone-crushing force.


The house was delapidated, with paint peeling like willow bark and a porch that sagged with years and the burdens of the family within.

Paint peeled like willow bark from the delapidated structure and the front porch, exhausted with age, sagged in its center.

But why can't it be okay to just state a condition every now and then? Like:

I was defeated.

It's short, sweet, and to the point. If you want more oomph, sub "beaten like a red-headed stepchild" or whatever. Sprinkle in an adverb like "utterly" as long as you're breaking all the rules. But if the narrator got theyself beat, a brilliant descriptive sentence that pops off the page doesn't feel the mood.

I'm paying a lot of attention to passive voice these days and some of my favorite books use a lot of it. I suspect this is because the authors are storytellers more than writers and spend less time worrying about passive voice than communicating the mood or state of the character. At any rate, the reading public is quite forgiving of passive voice regardless of what professionals think of it. It certainly appears with much more frequency in the classics. Probably because they were written before t.v. and movies and ADD convinced us all that everything has to be action or we will be bored by it.

Since I am not famous nor do I think I am the next Faulkner, I continue to scour my work with an eye toward eliminating adverbs and passive voice. I gotta tell you, though, sometimes it doesn't make any difference to the story. I wonder if the pendulum will ever swing back the other way? I miss adverbs. Passive voice doesn't bug me. And don't even get me started on the death of the backstory.


  1. LOL! I agree!! But I do try to edit out sentences with 'was.' I guess I've already been brainwashed...

    I think it depends on your voice. I tend to think what I write-MG--would be more boring with too many passive sentences.

    But there's always a balance.

  2. Have you read the first four Harry Potter books? Lots and lots of adverb dialogue tags. Lots! And yet, published to great success and I didn't really notice them until they were pointed out. Now I can't listen to the CDs without them standing out like the proverbial sore thumb.

    Isn't it: know the rules so you know what you're doing when you break them.

  3. Hi, Chris!

    Yeah, I'm dodging the "was" sentences, too. But sometimes they just work better, especially if you are setting a scene and you need to specify locations. It gets convoluted if you start using only sentences like

    "The table to her left slowed his attack." vs. "There was a table between them that gave her precious seconds."

    And Sarah, I know exactly of what you speak! I've read and loved all the Harry Potter books-repeatedly- and I am starting to resent the arbitrary rules of good writing that detract from my ability to enjoy a great story. Time was when I would never have noticed so long as the grammar was correct. Sure, we should hone and polish but a great story will shine through. For a typical reader dialogue tags become invisible and adverbs are just descriptor words, not the hobgoblin of the publishing world.

  4. I eradicate adverbs as best I can, but often the passive voice is the only one that will work.

  5. I leave passive voice and adverbs in my writing just for my writing partners to find. I'm that good. Ha! I wish.

    I've been fighting with these for a while, and have been getting better, I think. Still, I like your "I was defeated." example.

  6. The better rule, I find, is to go with what evokes the mood you want. I'd go with "There was a table between them that gave her precious seconds" if it hit the mood better than the first sentence.

    I also read my stuff aloud during the editing process so I can hear the cadence of it better. You can't always get the right rhythm when you only see it on the page.

  7. Strunk and White said not to break the rules "unless one is certain of doing well."

    So, once you learn the rules, and learn why they are important (as you clearly have!) then you are in an intelligent and educated position to determine whether there are exceptions, and whether you will "do well" to break the rules. But of course we all have to continue spouting the rules for the newcomers...

  8. Adverbs can be really lazy. As if slapping a few "ly's" on a bunch of words will make a story powerful. You're right, you should be showing the power of the story, not translating it into adverbs. That said, an adverb here and there can have a nice impact.

    I agree about balancing more intense sentences with less intense. Some passive voice is nice to keep the writing from feeling like heavy metal turned up to 11.

  9. Jason, I think you nailed it. Sometimes, the adverb can translate itself into a whole sentence. Like taking the dialogue tag:

    He said urgently

    And skipping the dialogue tag altogether in favor of

    The urgency in his voice...[insert whatever here]

    But this gets abused, too, and when taken in the larger context the first has the advantage of being shorter and allowing some other sentence to shine. Of course, you can leave out "urgently" and use a stronger dialogue tag, like "uttered" or "invoked," but that is frowned upon, as well. We all know dialogue tags are evil.

    So at the end of the day, it's more about balance and less about making sure each sentence follows the rules. A well-balanced paragraph and story trumps a series of glittering sentences. Unless, of course, you're writing flash ficton!

    Besides, passive voice might be better for a passive character. We all know people whose life sort of happens to them instead of people who live their lives. Passive voice is a good tool for characterizing that.

  10. Well, I sure am taking pointers from the por's here. I used to use them A LOT too, the adverbs. Till Jason and Vesper's advices made me realize the mistake.

    Couldn't agree more with you on the fact: "For a typical reader dialogue tags become invisible"

    They never seem to bother me as a reader (then again, I've never been through the publishing cycle. So I wouldn't know :D) and I loved the first 4 Harry Potter books. Way more than the last 3. So even with the so called flaws, sometimes things just Work! Right?

    A very insightful post indeed.

  11. BTW - You should try a legal writing course. Passive voice is strictly verboten.

  12. If I may quote Kenny Rogers, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

    Every tool in our writing toolbox has its time and place, some more frequent than others. I think good writers don't avoid adverbs and passive voice holistically, they are just more judicious with their use.

    I'm going to pull two books from my bookshelf and open them at random. I'll have two pages to scan and see if I find any adverbs or passive voice.

    First up: Harlan Coben's THE WOODS. Pages 314-315.

    Adverbs: severely, barely
    Passive voice: a lot. Especially if you include dialogue. It's not all telling, but it's there. Examples: He had been a good-looking guy back when I knew him. He still was. (Also:) I had expected something different.

    Next: No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Pages 172-173.

    Adverbs: quickly, loosely
    Passive voice: not as much as in The Woods, but it's there...

    the window was closed
    there was no air moving
    there was no one in the room
    newspaper he'd been reading

    Consensus: These were random pages and both adverbs and passive voice were present in both novels. One is genre fiction by a very successful / popular author, and the other is a literary work by an acclaimed master of prose.

  13. LOL! This is such a great post, Laurel, and one of the reasons that I've nominated you for an award! Hope you're having a great weekend.

  14. I don't want to get anyone going on the death of backstory, but if I have to start chopping that like my modifiers and passive voice, I'm just going to back away from the keyboard altogether.

  15. Laurel,

    I nominated you for an award. Details are on my blog. I think it may be one you've already received, if so Ha Ha you have do do all that crap again!

  16. Wow, Laurel. You've got quite a following. Good for you. My take on this is if you're established you can get away with a hell of a lot. Until you get your foot in that door (and by door I mean the New York big 'uns, which is who I think you're shooting for), you have to play by the rules, but with something so incredible story-wise, they want you. The smaller publishers seem to overlook a few ly adverbs here and there because the story is good enough and they trust the editors to polish the story (and the author). I don't like the publishing Pharisees because I think they're just looking for a piddly excuse to dump a good story into the reject pile. I guess they have so many stories to wade through so they are very militant. Not to slam anyone, but I really don't think Gone with the Wind could get published today. Please no one blast me for saying that, but if you've read it, you know what I'm talking about. Luckily, it did get published and they made a movie out of it, and we have that awesome music they made for it. Not to mention we have great quotes from it, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award, and perhaps best of all Carol Burnett spoofed it years later with the curtain dress that still makes me laugh.

  17. Weronika: Thanks! Rick, too late.

    Jennifer, I have no such prejudice about smaller vs. bigger publishers. Any would be just fine with little ole novice me.

    And there are a ton of success stories that couldn't get published today. I'm convinced this is at least in part to the homogenization of style with respect to things like adverbs and dialogue tags. Everyone is getting caught in the spam filter, so to speak, with agents and editors all on the lookout for these hallmarks of "bad writing."

  18. Oh, SHOOT!!! Because of your post, I cringed every freakin' time I read an ly adverb or a passive verb out loud to my dear children during bed time stories tonight. Curse you, BEAST QUEST!!!

    On the other hand (or book), I don't remember encountering either passive voice or the problematic adverbs in "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb." Ah, Dr. Seuss, to write like you....

  19. Jennifer:

    You're a hoot! Yes, Dr. Seuss did avoid the dreaded ly words, passive voice, and (Dunh, Dunh, DUUUNH!) dialogue tags.

    And we all know who his target audience was. Hmm.

  20. Yes. Children who grew up to be adults who loved his books so much they bought them for their children. Heck. Dr. Seuss is an icon. Now that's when you know you've arrived as a writer. Either that or you find your book on the A.R. list.

  21. Just thought I'd pop in and say 'Hi. Miss your posts.'