Voice and the use of adverbs

by Nicole

Question: New writers are always being told that adverbs are bad. That the use of adverbs indicates lazy writing, never adds anything to a sentence, and can get an otherwise good manuscript rejected by literary agents. But agents always stress the importance of having a strong voice to getting your book published, particularly if it's in first-person and the character telling your story has to stand out; and I was wondering, what if your viewpoint character uses a lot of adverbs? For instance, I'm writing a YA novel with a teenage girl as the narrator and while I wouldn't say she uses an abnormal amount of adverbs, her thoughts contain an amount realistic for a teenage girl, which is more than the amount recommended for a writer to use. So I want to know if the rules they give you regarding adverbs for writing a novel in general change at all when you're specifically writing a YA novel with a first-person narrator, outside of dialogue of course, which I know can pretty much contain anything if it happens to be true to the characters speaking it. Oh, and it would also be nice to know how much slang, profanity, and pop culture references are acceptable.


Answer: To appeal to agents and editors, your primary concern is to create a unique, appealing, and authentic voice. The pros tend to reject a manuscript after having read less than one page if it doesn't have a voice that grabs them. When that happens, they will never see how well how well you bring the plot to a satisfactory conclusion, or how profound your thematic message is, etc.

Voice and style are the only things you can really give them on the first page to convince them to keep reading.

Of course, to sound authentic, your voice must be appropriate to the character. Nonetheless, good narrative voices or main characters tend to be exceptional story tellers. For instance, how many intellectually challenged people could tell a story as poetically and clearly as Forest Gump? How many uneducated children could narrate as well as Huckleberry Finn?

It's a fine balance, making your main character an exceptional story teller, and yet still keeping her voice authentic and in keeping with her age, background, and other traits.

Regarding the rule about adverbs, I believe every rule that says something like "Never do X" should end with the phrase "unless the writing is better if you do."

If it makes your character sound more authentic to use a few adverbs, then do it. But make sure the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

I suggest you first try taking the adverbs out and seeing if the voice is stronger or weaker. You may find that your prose becomes stronger with only a minimum of adverbs--enough to capture the essence of that teenage voice without becoming a distraction in themselves.

You can sometimes go too far in trying to make your character talk like a teenager--to the point where the slang and idiom are distracting and detrimental to the story telling. Remember that idiom requires the reader to work harder to decipher it. So the effort must be worthwhile.

Incidentally, all this is true about dialogue as well. Good dialogue never duplicates the way people actually speak. Real speech is full of pointless, boring verbiage.

Good dialogue is much leaner. It gives the essence of real speech, but with all the boring parts omitted. You have to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. You have to give the characters their unique voices, but not make the reader work too hard to decipher them.

Regarding profanity, what you can get away with depends where you want to sell books. In Canada and the UK, for example, publishers know that most teenagers swear and that even those teens who don't swear will have heard every profane expression on the playground before they get to high school. Publishers in these countries recognize that a few four-letter words make the characters more authentic.

In other places, such as the southern US, a lot of people still believe it is their duty to protect young people from hearing certain words (as if that were possible). Many schools and libraries will not buy books with "mature language" because they fear parental complaints.

Of course, it also depends a little on what type of book you're writing. YA literary fiction can get away with more authentic language, because authenticity matters more in literary fiction. YA genre fiction may face tougher rules because authenticity is perhaps less emphasized.

Comments for Voice and the use of adverbs

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Nov 25, 2013
You know what you call an author who uses too many adverbs?
by: Wayne

J.K.Rowlings.

Nov 25, 2013
Good point, Wayne
by: Glen

She also tends to make sentences a bit too long for my taste, but these weaknesses didn't hurt her sales because she does other things so well.

That's an important principle: If you do some things really well, you can get away with not being perfect in other areas.

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