Taking Advice

I saw this list of quotes from Stephen King today, and immediately thought “YES!” when I read the first one: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

As you know, I give writing advice a lot. I speak from a Bachelors and a Masters in creative writing and (more importantly) as a professional in the publishing industry. I’d like to think I’m pretty qualified to give writing advice, as are many other publishing professionals who offer advice on a regular basis. All we can do is sit back and hope people listen. (Mostly so we don’t have to repeat ourselves.)

That said, I understand why some writers don’t take our advice.

With so much subjectivity in the field, how does one differentiate between personal taste and unarguable truth? The thing is, there are always going to be exceptions to rules, so nothing is ever set in stone. But! For the most part, especially for a debut author who’s way less likely to be able to break any rules, there are some things you’ll just need to take an editor’s word on.

Bringing me back to adverbs. Poor, poor adverbs. The thing is, they can be used in moderation, but no one ever uses them sparingly enough, so they get ruined for everybody. Adverbs are words that seem to be universally hated by writing professionals, and yet writers continue to use (and abuse) them. It makes me wonder who is listening to writing advice out there.

So I ask you, fair writers:
How often do you listen to writing advice from professionals, either via blogs, conferences, or Twitter?
How many second opinions do you require before you’re able to think of suggestions as “rules?”
When something is as frowned upon as adverbs, are you still able to write it off as “personal preference?”

Thanks, friends 🙂

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29 thoughts on “Taking Advice

  1. Great post! I've heard the writing advice to try not to use adverbs in your writing and I try hard not to let those “ly” words get into my prose – but something that really bothers me is I find it EVERYWHERE in books by big name authors. I see it making their writing weaker and it drives me nuts, but it's like I just keep finding it in every new book I pick up even when I've heard the author say on a podcast not to use adverbs if you can avoid them! What gives? Even if these authors used all of these adverbs, why aren't their editors have them take them all out before it gets published? Adverbs drive me nuts and my newer stories don't have them. If only all the pro published books I'm reading didn't have them either!

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  2. I tend to feel adverbs are like sparkling diamonds and their purpose is to ornament. Too much glitter and you're blinded by the shine, you can't focus on the sentence anymore and get distracted.

    -If at least three SOLID sources recommend a rule I'll follow it (to an extent, without killing my voice)–there are a lot of know-it-alls out there spewing out rules, with little credentials behind them, which only confuses beginners. I tend to browse a lot of recent Writing Books which helps.

    -Constructive criticism is golden. Lay it on heavy.

    -When something is frowned upon, like adverbs, I'll change my methodology but if I need to use that diamond to amplify drama/meaning, I'll do it. But I realize the era of books like Jane Eyre and other classics, with sentence upon sentence of adverbs, is long gone. Just like our modern reader's patience.

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  3. Great post – and I tend to agree. I think anything in moderation (in the case of adverbs, sparing moderation) is a good thing. I find that I use adverbs mostly when I'm guilty of telling instead of showing – that's the quickest way for me to spot my weak spots on a revision run.

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  4. That quote is hilarious!

    I like to get second opinions, but I always take everything into account. I know that some people hate adverbs more than others, but this has become a rule, especially for me. If I try to eliminate as many adverbs as I can from my MS, it gets so much better!

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  5. I tend to read, listen, take advise and in the main it works. All my writing is in the first person so adverbs are not such a blight. I have winced at my early attempts but now it seems to be balanced between theory, advice and not to be taken lightly the soul. You can feel soul in writing and creatively it tends to be easier to get these thoughts down. Then the editor steps in!!!!! Some times good some times bad.
    Thanks for the opportunity to pass comment. Love your tweets

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  6. I read lots of advice, and then I shut it all out and write. What sticks, sticks. I've found in the past that if I don't shut out the advice I can't get the stupid story on the page. Which is the very end I was using the advice to meet.

    Story > writing advice

    After a while, good writing comes [more] naturally anyway.

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  7. Sarah, I hear you. It does get a little repetitive. But we blog readers are always coming and going, so you never know when another Idiot Krista from Three or Four Years Ago might wander through:)

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  8. I mostly rely on what I learned in English Literature and Creative Writing classes and from novels I read that have won awards and received great professional reviews. When it comes to writing advice posted on the Internet, I only pay attention to advice based on developing literary skill, but completely ignore advice based on popular trends or personal preferences. As far as adverbs go, if the number of adverbs is in line with those in award-winning books and sounds like really good writing, it's OK with me. I feel like sometimes popular trends in writing lead to a kind of “paint-by-numbers” art form in which every book sounds basically like every other book and there's just not enough creativity … until someone does something completely new, and then that becomes the new popular trend which everyone's expected to follow.

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  9. Everything in moderation. But what “in moderation” means varies widely depending on whether you're talking about carrot sticks (showing rather than telling) or double-hot-fudge-death-by-chocolate-cake (adverbs).

    — Jo Eberhardt

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