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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§ 10 Responses to The Much-Maligned Adverb

  • mbnix09 says:

    I need to work on this myself! “On Writing” by Stephen King made me much more aware of my adverb use but it’s a hard habit to break. Oftentimes I have to do what you did: write a first draft filled with my usual adverb traps, and then revise it to scratch all the worst out. Sometimes, they are essential for conveying a certain meaning, but more often than not people use them as “fluff,” or filler words!

    Great post.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Something I loved about Stephen King’s adverb talk was that he made it clear that not all adverbs had to go and called out a few in his own writing that he’d chosen to keep. I just wish he’d explained more thoroughly why he decided to keep them when he kept them.

  • Thanks so much for these ‘tips’! 🙂
    Most of these actually make a lot of sense. Especially since you give examples. I realized that I do the same too. Too much maybe. And the ‘show, don’t tell’ one completely works. My fiction writing teacher taught us that and would always point it out in my drafts for the final paper. That became the only reason I got a good grade in that piece plus I can actually see the difference in that story compared to the older ones.

  • Lola says:

    I’m with mbnix09 on this – “On Writing” was super helpful to me too, in that it made me more aware of adverbs in my own work.

    I think you’re right, you certainly don’t want to sacrifice flow for style during the writing of your first draft. You also don’t want to get so engrossed in eliminating adverbs that you minimise your ‘voice’ as a writer – as a reader, I’ll put up with a few adverbs if the story is well told. Adverbs are like a lot of fun stuff, I guess – good in moderation!

  • 8 Pontos says:

    Thanks for the tips, and while we write, sometimes we don’t realize how repetitive we are, maybe to emphasizes our history, but in most time the reader already got it.

    Including, in my native language (portuguese), people love to use this things, being redundant almost always

    Reviewing our texts always gives us chances to improve, but we have to be carefull to not kill the essense of the history, I mean, we have to know how trim the adverbs, right? 😉

    I liked your blog, congrats!


  • msbooklover says:

    thanks so much for commenting on my blog. You have no idea how much that means to me. I like you’re blog by the way (not just saying that to be nice!!). Hope you enjoy my book reviews in the future! 🙂

  • J Paul III says:

    I agree. My use of adverbs needs to be checked on all the time–something I often forget. I consider them in the same light as adjectives: use them when they change or specify the meaning, not when they are clutter or fillers.
    Good advice. A stellar blog as usual.

  • Jay Swanson says:

    The great thing about cutting stuff is it becomes a matter of pride. “How can I reduce my word count today?” is a subliminal question that drives my pinky to the delete key more frequently than I’d like to admit. Having nice, clean, tight paragraphs is a great feeling. Especially when you get the point across with no superfluous nonsense. You’re trying to get something across to the reader, not bog them down with more to read. At least, that’s what I hope you’re trying to do.

  • sbmartin says:

    I agree. Some adverbs are necessary, but when I started out I used them too much. They seem to be the easy way out or, at least, they were for me. I still over use them in my first drafts, but I’m able to go back and take them out or rework the sentence by using a verb instead. This is a great post. It’s something writers need to be aware of.

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