The Much-Maligned Adverb
October 2, 2011 § 10 Comments
Adverbs freak me out. A few years ago I got serious about my writing and, as a reader, one of my first steps was finding some good books on writing. And it seemed like every book I picked up had the same thing to say about adverbs: “hunt them down and exterminate them with no mercy.”
And so began the great adverb annihilation. My writing at the time was rife with them and I soon found, as the books had suggested, that many of them were unnecessary. I lost a lot of “quickly”s and “very”s and “suddenly”s, and my writing tightened up and took a big step forward. But I soon found (don’t look now, but ‘soon’ was an adverb) that some adverbs were harder to eliminate than others. I launched into restructuring sentences or entire paragraphs to eradicate the vile adverbs. My writing pace slowed as I panicked every time an adverb slipped in, and the flow of my stories suffered because of it.
Then I had a moment of revelation: the authors in the books I was reading all used adverbs. Often, they even used adverbs I could have eliminated (because yes, it had gotten so bad that if I came across an adverb while reading I would rework the sentence in my head until the offending adverb was gone), but oftentimes with the elimination, some of the voice was lost. After doing a bit more research I realized that all of the books on writing were actually using adverbs to tell me not to use adverbs (for example, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style uses an adverb in the first paragraph).
So what’s the take away from all this? A couple things: First, there’s a reason authors and editors warn against adverbs in their books. Adverbs tend to pull punches and dilute writing (there are specific examples below). On the other hand, adverbs are a necessary part of the English language. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King take a passage from The Great Gatsby and edit it, removing the adverbs. It could be because I bear a certain affinity for the book as it was published, but I felt like their “corrected” version lacked the life and voice of the original. There’s another reason to embrace the adverb (occasionally). Adverbs allow an opportunity for irony because you can set the reader up to expect one thing with the verb and change the direction with the adverb. “He raced casually” or “laughed seriously” are phrases you can’t achieve with verbs alone.
Where to cut
Just lose the adverb
Oftentimes unnecessary adverbs sneak into your writing, especially with beginning writers. The good news is that these are the easiest to take care of. In my own writing, the perpetrator tends to be ‘just.’ For example I’ll write something like “she just couldn’t wait for the day to be over.” In that sentence the ‘just’ is
entirely unnecessary. You can trim it without changing the meaning of the sentence. Other examples of this are “yelled loudly” or “crouched down.” There’s no other way to yell or crouch so why use two words to do the job of one?
Even worse is when the adverb confuses the meaning of the verb. As Charlie Anders from i09 points out, “I’ve seen the phrase ‘smiled thinly’ in a number of old science fiction novels before, and I never quite know what it means. Is the man in question smiling while pursing his lips? Is he smiling with his mouth but not his eyes? Is it only a halfway smile? It’s not a clear image, at least not to me.”
Show, don’t tell
This is another of the most common pieces of writing advice and helps us here. It’s common to try to use adverbs like “suddenly” to amp up your writing and increase tension and pace. Instead, cut “suddenly”
altogether and show the reader that something is happening “suddenly.” For example, if “Suddenly, someone came quickly out of the bushes,” you can instead say “Jillian screamed as someone came quickly out of the bushes,” which better conveys the immediacy and shock. Another way you can make things seem more sudden is by strengthening the verb…
Strengthen the verb
English has a wealth of descriptive verbs, ready and waiting to be used (which is an ironic thing to say in a sentence whose verbs are “has” and “be”). So why say “he walked quickly” instead of “he hurried,” “he rushed,” or “he raced.” Using a strong verb is more descriptive than using a weak verb and an adverb. So going back to Jillian and the fellow in the bushes: instead of screaming as someone “came quickly” out of the bushes, “Jillian screamed as someone leapt out of the bushes” or “charged out of the bushes.”
When to leave them
I still err on the side of cutting adverbs because I would rather spend a few more hours reworking sentences than have a manuscript overlooked because the first sentence was “Really, truly, they were very poor.” and my writing has unquestionably improved since I’ve been made more aware of the adverb traps I fall into. That said, don’t pay any attention to them on the first draft (advice I need to follow better myself). If you’re stopping every minute to rework a sentence, you’re compromising your flow and wasting time because by the second or third draft you might have cut or rewritten the offending section. If I had taken my own advice on this blog post I probably would’ve been done an hour ago.
Thoughts? Am I misinformed and adverbs are the spawn of Satan himself? Other examples of good/bad adverb use? As a reader do you even notice or care about adverb use?
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