in which i talk about adverbs, and related issues

I was just reading about adverbs over at AlreadyNotPublished. Apparently agents and publishers don’t like adverbs these days.

Two points come to mind.


If you’re going to be a professional, then it’s really important to be professional. Know your market, know what’s selling, project the future as much as you can. If you’re a writer, know your genre and what its requirements are.

When I was a professional musician, I spent a lot of time doing this kind of work and research. What kinds of bands were being signed, and where, and how? I always remember Robert Fripp (probably even now the best guitarist I’ve ever heard) saying that the big surprise for him about being a professional musician was how much time he spent on business and how little actually playing music.

So, if your potential customers — agents and publishers — currently have a thing about adverbs (or prologues or flashbacks or “filter words” or whatever) then you should write to that market.



Out of curiosity, I just reread the first few pages of The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James, and there are quite a few adverbs in there. And a lot of adjectives, in many very long paragraphs, with a lot of descriptions, no action, characters described but not named, and no dialogue.

I’m sure there are rules about all of that, too. But The Portrait of a Lady persists in being a masterpiece, fads aside. My mother, near the end of her life, went back to those first pages quite a few times, saying that it might be the best beginning of any novel she’d ever read.

Probably no agent or publisher today would touch it, and they might be right. Would it sell a lot of copies today? Maybe not, and they are professionals, too. If writers need to know what publishers are buying, then publishers need to know, as much as possible, what readers are buying.

But The Portrait of a Lady is still great.

So, my advice, for whatever it’s worth, would be to do your work, as a professional (if you are one), but keep in the back of your mind that none of the current fads have anything to do with actually making great art.

(If it needs to be said, is it possible to write badly with a lot of adverbs? Of course — we’ve all seen examples of that. It’s also possible to write badly in hundreds of other ways, some of which don’t involve any adverbs at all. Preventing bad writing isn’t possible with simplistic rules.)

The people I have less sympathy for are those who want to write exactly what they want to write, and then expect that somehow it will go out in the world all by itself and become hugely popular.

Probably not.

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