Adverbs and Aggravation!

I was planning on doing a blog on writer’s block, and I ended up with it. I’m sure that there’s some irony in there somewhere. I haven’t been able to write everything in a couple months, now, and it’s starting to gnaw at me. Of course, my editing is going fine but when it comes to writing something myself I’ve got this gigantic, granite stone sitting on my creativity. It’s giggling at me right now as I try and write so we’ll see how far this goes.

Since writing about writer’s block seems to be a cursed exercise, I’m going to switch gears a little bit and write about my personal pet peeves regarding writing. I’ve got a lot of them, but some stick out more than others. Some of them are more a personal thing than others, some are just poor writing. While I’m certain that people will disagree with others, I hope that the majority of them help steer people away from making bad literary decisions.

One of the things that annoys me the worst in writing is overusing adverbs. While, unlike some authors, I don’t think they’re an enemy in their entirety, they can very easily be overused. It’s an unfortunate truth that many writers overuse them, too. An adverb can be appropriate in occasional use, but if your work is littered with them (do a search for “ly” and see how many hits you get in your writing) then you may wish to reconsider. Adverbs are, in my opinion, the lazy way out. While, granted, there are times when you don’t want to write a great deal of detail about something (“He slunk quietly down the hall.”) there are times when it cripples your description.

The problem with adverbs is that they are all “tell” and no “show.” I’m sure you’ve all heard me speak on the subject of “show” versus “tell” in the past, so I won’t reiterate it to you. But it’s pretty clear that it is really the reason why adverbs are to be used with caution. Telling us that your protagonist (or any character) did something is nowhere near as evocative as you showing it to us and letting us feel and hear the heartbeat of your writing for ourselves.

The next thing that gets to me is the phrase “and then”. While the occasional use makes my hackles stand on end (due to being exposed to a judicial overuse of it), it’s the overuse of the phrase that makes me froth like a rabid chimpanzee. And probably make similar noises. (It’s a lucky thing I edit in a room by myself, eh?) It’s a very blase way of putting together a string of events, in my opinion: “He snickered and then sneezed.” While it certainly is functional, it is also redundant. You would be better off using either “and” or “then”. Using them together, most of the time, is inefficient (and I’m a big fan of writing being efficient). There are times when it is fully appropriate, but, again, do a search through your writing and see how many times it pops up. If it’s more than once (maybe occasionally twice) per page then consider snipping it out.

And, finally, we’re on to the biggest thing that makes me want to bite people in writing: overusing the thesaurus. I’ve found that the poor thesaurus is the most abused book I’ve ever seen. It should probably check itself into a battered books’ shelter and seek therapy. Over the course of my life of reading and writing I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an exact synonym. You can come extremely close, of course, but you can never exactly substitute one word for another without changing small details in the reader’s mind. Out of this belief comes my voracious love of words. I devour them, sidle up next to them on cold nights and make inappropriate comments about “getting to know them better” and eventually seduce them into compliance. I will admit to the use of a thesaurus when I don’t exactly know the word for what I’m trying to say and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem with thesauruses is when someone uses them in an attempt to make their vocabulary “bigger” and “more impressive”. The best example of this is at one point I encountered someone who described a female character’s curves as “cantankerous”. I believe that her intent was to use “cantankerous” to mean “dangerous to approach”, in which case it’s almost acceptable. Unfortunately, the rest of the definitions have to do with being ill-tempered. So her character’s shapely body was very foul tempered. I performed an epic “facepalm” and tried to help the poor girl.

Now, the reason I mention this isn’t just because it’s a bit of a silly situation, but it’s because this kind of thing happens all the time. Writers often develop this mistaken belief that in order to get taken seriously they need to use large, impressive words. I often find that large, impressive words cloud meaning and can, in fact, be detrimental. Of course, I’m guilty of using what most people consider to be “large words,” but I grew up with parents that speak in such a way so it’s something that I have been attempting to unlearn in my writing. Using smaller, concrete words allows your writing to reach a broader audience. To be honest, the best description I have ever read was from Neil Gaiman: “(he) was the size, and shape, of a refrigerator.” This line, from American Gods, has stuck with me as one of the top examples of concrete description. The character, of course, had a little more information regarding hair color but in totality the manner, physical dimensions, and general feel of the character were brilliantly summed up in those few, short words. It didn’t require words that most Harvard graduates don’t know in order to paint a clear, beautiful picture.

I’m certain that I will come across other bits and pieces of writing to froth indignantly over, but at the moment those are the ones that strike me as the most vulgar. My opinion, of course, may change in the future, but keeping an eye out for those problems may prove of use to you.


3 thoughts on “Adverbs and Aggravation!

  1. Hi, Beth. Not sure if you will ever dig back to see this. I know you are busy. I am trying to improve my “show and not tell” writing. In the article above, you used an excellent phrase which resonated with me: “letting us feel and hear the heartbeat of your writing”. Yes, I finally understand what you have been so patiently telling me all these months. Though slow, I eventually understand most things.


    1. Rob,

      I actually read all the comments on my blog. I am so glad that you found this helpful! That’s what these entries are here for and I am pleased that you found use for it. I need to start posting more frequently, but life has just been getting ahead of me lately!


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