Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules: Part One, Introduction and Adverbs

I’m one of the last people you’d expect to break writing rules.  I studied editing for my Master of Technical and Scientific Education degree, and I was a proofreader for a local newspaper. I favor the Oxford comma, and when I critiqued chapters on for an online workshop, I spent most of my time pointing out punctuation errors. And yes, I admit to being both anal and conscientious. So why am I blogging about breaking the writing rules?

Rules exist for a reason—to make something safer or fairer for everyone. When it comes to writing rules, the punctuation and grammar rules are there to make things clear. For example, knowing how to use semicolons and commas when making lists will help you separate each item correctly, so there’s no confusion. This is also why I use the Oxford comma. This sentence: “He liked my parents, Darth Vader and Yoda,” could mean that my parents are Darth Vader and Yoda. That would definitely cause a disturbance in the Force. Adding a comma after “Darth Vader” makes it clear that this name is a separate item in the list, not a description of my parents. Rules like this are worth following because if your readers become confused, you’ve lost them.

However, there are other writing rules that have less justification for existing. Some of them are based on a misunderstanding of the language, some of them might be applicable in formal speech but less so in fiction, and some of them are rules thoughtlessly passed down from writer to writer because that’s how they were taught or because some writing styles were in fashion when they started writing. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers had to follow the rules to have a chance of breaking in. Now, however, you don’t have to please agents and editors, only readers, and their tastes may be broader than gatekeepers give them credit for.  It’s worth re-examining these types of rules to see if they’re still worth following. There are times when breaking a rule will help you achieve a certain effect in your fiction. However, first you have to understand the rule in order to break it effectively.

Let’s start by looking at one of the most well-known rules: don’t use adverbs. (This advice is generally directed at words that end in "ly," but those aren't the only adverbs around.) The reason you’re not supposed to use adverbs is because they can make a sentence seem wordy or redundant. They may also be used to shore up weak verbs to make your writing style seem “pretty.” (Adjectives are also used for this purpose.) In my opinion, a strong verb is more concise and powerful than a weak verb plus an adjective.  For example, why say “walk slowly and deliberately” when you can say “paced” or “plodded”? But removing an entire class of words from your toolbox is extreme. There may be times when you want to use a strong verb but shade its meaning, or even imply the opposite of what the verb normally means. For example, smiling is normally a happy or friendly gesture, but pairing “smiled” with “sadly” or “meanly” puts a new set of emotions behind the upturned lips and in the eyes. Also, if you’re writing historical fiction or steampunk, using florid phrases may help evoke the time period.

When it comes to breaking any writing rule, moderation is key. If there are a lot of adverbs on every page, then they can become tiresome to read. The fewer adverbs you use, the more impact each one will have. However, it’s not worth breaking your writing flow to strip adverbs from your sentences as you write. If adverbs come to you in the heat of the first draft, feel free to include them. You can always strip them out later if you decide deleting them won’t affect your sentence. I deliberately included some adverbs in this essay, but I also removed some that I felt were too wordy.

How do you feel about adverbs, or writing rules in general? Are there other writing rules you’d like me to discuss in this series? Feel free to mention them in the comments.


  1. This was perfect timing for me to read. As I go through my WIP, I'm looking for the useless commas and adding the necessary ones. Not an easy task for me, I love my commas!!

  2. I do have commas on my list of things to discuss, Elsie.

  3. In my writing life, I've loved, hated, been okay with, then re-hated, and now, Super-hate adverbs.

    It used to be just in dialog tags that I had issues, but now it's just about anywhere I see them. Of course, like you said, folks that use them infrequently tend to use them well. But as a general rule, if I notice them then they're being used too much.

    I won't touch punctuation. I'm still struggling to not put periods in the middle of my sentences.

    1. Adverbs may go in and out of fashion, but they're here to stay.

  4. The no adverb "rule" is ridiculous. I blame Stephen King that anyone even give it any weight.
    If you look back at many of the classics, they are full of adverbs, so, obviously, this "no adverb" idea is new.
    What I tell my students about adverbs is to avoid "very" and "really," because those two are adverbs that are overused in the extreme and can almost certainly be left out. Also, I tell them to not use adverbs in their dialogue tags if at all possible. Dialogue tags should fade away, not call attention to themselves and filling them with adverbs not only calls attention but is generally redundant. There is no reason to say "whispered quietly," although you might want to say "whispered loudly."

  5. "Useless Commas" would make a good band name.

    I think the most important thing is: know the rules, and have a reason for breaking them. I don't mind when a character shouts something "angrily," because show-don't-tell is sometimes awkward:

    "Don't steal my band's name!" he shouted angrily.


    "You didn't think it up yourself!" she shouted back, with her face furrowed into a grimace and her eyes wild and reddened, while her veins stuck out around her neck and she clenched her fists...

  6. I think in this example, the dialogue already shows the emotion, so you don't need the adverb. But I agree that sometimes showing the emotion is wordier than using an adverb. Which one is better depends on context.

  7. Some older books definitely overused and misused adverbs, but I don't see why so many modern writers feel they're absolute evil. Sometimes an adverb is more descriptive and to the point than 5-20 extra words. As long as they're not used superfluously (e.g., "screamed loudly"), used when the preceding dialogue or narrative has already established someone is impatient, angry, etc., or used seemingly for their own sake, I don't see what's so wrong with them. An adverb can also help the reader with painting his or her own picture of the scene, instead of having everything exactly spelled out by the writer, no room for personal interpretation.

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