Sunday, March 27, 2011

Weekend Writing Craft: What's wrong with adverbs?

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Stephen King

"If you see an adverb, kill it." – Mark Twain
If you've taken a fiction writing class, you've heard about how despicable adverbs are. Words that end in ly? Ugh. You don't want them in your story. But what is it about these describing words that's so awful?

What adverbs do
Adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Often they end in ly, as with terribly, horrendously, shyly, nearly, or remarkably. Sometimes they don't, as with very, rather, or even.

Why they've got a bad rap
People dislike adverbs in fiction writing for a couple of reasons:

1. There's usually a better way to say it.
Mark Twain called adverbs "the tool of the lazy writer." That's because adverbs are a shortcut. They normally accompany an ordinary verb that the writer decides doesn't tell enough about the scene. For example:

"She walked slowly into the room."

In this sentence, you can easily condense the verb walked and the adverb slowly into one better fitting verb:

"She ambled into the room."

"She sidled into the room."

"She trudged into the room."

The above three sentences say the same thing as "She walked slowly into the room," but they are more concise, they're more interesting, they flow better, and they describe the mood of the scene better.

2. Adverbs tell instead of show
Last week I talked about the "show, don't tell" rule. Adverbs are another form of telling. Use of an interesting verb is always going to be more exciting than pairing a mundane verb with an adverb. Consider which of these examples from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is better:

"Angrily she set the cup and saucer on the kitchen table."

Now the same action, replacing the adverb angrily and the verb set with one stronger and better suited verb, slammed:

"She slammed the cup and saucer onto the kitchen table" (Browne and King, 198). 

The second sentence gives us the mood of the subject—anger—without having to explain to the reader that the subject is angry.

3. Adverbs often tell us what we already know
If the action or situation denotes the mood of a scene, adverbs are usually unnecessary as they only repeat what the reader already knows. For example:

"Cunningly, Liz slipped the poison into Dave's coffee while his back was turned."

Slipping poison into someone's coffee is a cunning action. Using the adverb cunningly in this instance marks the writer as insecure; he or she is over-explaining to the point where the reader will find it patronizing, irritating. Nobody likes to be told something they already know.

No adverbs, ever?
Should we kill every adverb we see? Not necessarily, but almost. As Taggart and Wines say in their book My Grammar and I, "If in doubt, leave your adverb out" (Taggart and Wines, 97). Indeed, adverbs should be used sparingly (ooh, there's one now!), and only when there isn't a better way to say something. Sometimes adverbs are the clearest way to say something, for example:

"Of the swim team, only Jane made it to the semi-finals."

So, as with "telling," adverbs are okay some of the time, but they should always be scrutinized. Ask yourself if the sentence would be stronger and clearer phrased a different way. Look for strong verbs rather than verb-adverb combinations. Be aware of adverbs that are a particular problem for you. Do your characters say things "softly"? Do they speak "longingly," or "achingly" or "harshly"? Rephrase so that the context lets us know what the characters are feeling. Your writing will be better, and your reader will be more engaged with your work and more satisfied when they finish reading it.

Works cited:

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Taggart, Caroline and J.A. Wines. My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?). London: Michael O'Mara Books, 2008.


  1. For a moment I thought this was going to be a post of adverb apologetics! I'm earnestly, thankfully, overwhelmingly glad I was mistaken :p

  2. This is so wonderful that I'm sharing it with my English classes. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Brad, I am absolutely, undeniably, decidedly, irrevocably, not an adverb apologist :)

    Jeff, thanks! I am honored. (I am also racing through the post again to double check for grammar errors.)