MFA rules: Monkey Follow Advice?

With “only” two days left for the Young Adult Faeries and Fantasy Hop hosted by I am a Reader, Not a Writer and co-hosted by Velvet from VB32reads, I have a question for my “lovely” readers. I’d “really” like to hear your opinions, so before you skip down to the Rafflecopter form, please take a minute to read through and state your choice in a comment. I’d “really” appreciate it. Anyway, aren’t you curious to know the reason I’ve put quotes around my “ly” adverbs? Please take a minute to read on. Thanks!

Last night I had so many great ideas for blog posts with catchy titles, I could “hardly” contain them. But I didn’t write any down. Now all I remember is this one. It stemmed from hubby wanting me to sit beside him in bed while he watched a movie on TV.  I wrote on my laptop, trimming down the first part of my book for a contest, after which I asked him to take a look.

When he handed the laptop back, “suddenly” there was a big fat “ly” adverb staring me in the face.  He didn’t see a thing wrong with it, and “frankly”, neither did I, except I knew that some well-meaning writing “expert” promoted the idea that adverbs are bad, as if there were enough strong verbs in the English language. There aren’t, or people wouldn’t have invented adverbs. Think on that.

My hubby “frequently” writes reports for his government job. He knows all the professional writing rules. But he doesn’t know those weird rules I learned at writers’ conferences, the ones made up by some MFA in writing and copied by every other MFA. I’ve decided to call these so-called Masters in Fine Arts programs “Monkey Follow Advice” because that’s what many of them seem to promote: monkey see, monkey do. It’s also the least insulting acronym I could think of.

If you have an MFA, please do not take this as a personal insult to your education. I’m all for education, just not allowing ideas and opinions to become rules that must be followed or else the rule breaker can’t be a good writer. I “recently” read about one agent who says too many submissions now look like cookie-cutouts. I am not saying every MFA rule is bad, but some are, in my opinion. I’ll give you two prime examples, but “only” one in this post. I hope you’ll come back to read and weigh in on the other example in a few days, when I announce winners for all three current giveaways.

For the “adverb” rule, how is “without warning” any better description than “suddenly”? Two words for one. Used “correctly”, adverbs save on word-count. But “He anxiously waited for the news” could be better described by “He paced, waiting for the news.” That one replaces a vague feeling with a precise visual description. Here’s another example. “She spoke so ‘softly’, he ‘barely’ heard the words,” vs. “She murmured so he almost couldn’t hear the words.” A strong verb worked for the first half, but what about the second? I might have used, “so he just heard the words”, but writers are also supposed to avoid “just”. “Seriously” now, does either second half express the idea any better than the adverb does? I say adverb usage should be chosen according to circumstance and need to create a picture, not dictated by some MFA rule. Writing is an art, after all.

Speaking of writing as an art, I “finally” made a blog button and a poster to show this idea. The button is on my sidebar where you can grab it, and here’s the poster.  Both feature the broken Heartland of Erth One, the world in my middle grade book. If you look close enough, you’ll see I created it by modifying the North American continent. Credit for the color version goes to Tirzah of A Clever Whatever. You may see a familiar cover or two on her site, and an interesting description of how small changes in a cover make a big effect on its mood and the impression it makes on a potential reader. Art is “definitely” Tirzah’s art, while my art is writing.

There. I’ve had my “writerly”say, but I want yours, as a reader. Do writers who use lots of adverbs seem less competent to you? Does their writing interest you any less? Not if J. K. Rowling’s early Harry Potter books are any indicator. What advice would you give, “especially” to an unpublished writer like me. Believe me, I’m trying to be the poster child for toeing the MFA line with my first book, at least for “ly” adverbs, but I’d rather be the poster child for creative writing. So if you were me, would you try to slip in an “ly” adverb here and there?

One more thing before you go. Jan 11 is my next drawing for the “win books and chocolate” contest tab above, so there’s still time to enter. If you’re late, your entry will be saved for next month’s drawing. I have more book pictures to post within the next week or so. All those photos take time.

Okay, now on to the last post containing the Rafflecopter entry form. If you don’t see it below, click here. Thanks for reading! Double thanks if you comment!

Share A Heart

Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. Not exactly, MFA. Some will hear the advice and rip out their adverbs without knowing why, just that they’re supposed to. But, there are good reasons for it. Firstly, there’s the “telling” aspect. Cleverly written, you can convey the severity of an action without modifying the action itself. It’s a more literary approach. You can emphasis an action by simply stating it.

    He kicked in the door.

    What it allows you to use adverbs in places that don’t need to be literary. It’s a structural decision.

    And, another reason is also structural. -ly, when used repeatedly, attracts attention. Many readers might not notice, but people who read for a living…like agents, editors, query screeners…they’re going to notice. And it might just annoy them enough by the time they get to your submission to pass on it.

    So…adverbs aren’t evil. They aren’t wrong. But, they have drawbacks.

  2. For me, the story is the most important so the adverb do not offend me. But i will be clearly offended with vulgar words when there are no need.

  3. That’s some observation.. As long as we get the point, I don’t think an adverb is going to disturb the flow of reading! That’s my opinion “honestly” 😀

  4. This is a system of a large syndrome. There is a huge difference between what the MFAs who keep the gates of publishing, and the audiences who buy books.

    The MFAs are not as smart as they think they are; they’ll cite rules and standards that exist “only” within their world. But how many popular authors’ styles, like Rowling, Larsson and King, fly in the face of the commercial publishers’ and agents’ standards?

    I object to too many “-ly” adverbs, but I don’t know whether other readers do. But “occasionally,” it’s the right word. And I always say, use the words you need for the idea you want to express.

    A good story is a good story. Citing arbitrary rules like “there’s an adverb in it” as a reason to reject a manuscript is a symptom that the gatekeeper does not know what he or she is doing.

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