Adverbs. Again.

I recently had someone get in my face, proverbially speaking, because I quoted so many other writers and greats in saying you should avoid using adverbs as  much as possible. The writer made a valid statement, saying adverbs aren’t all bad – everybody uses them. He had a point, but he missed the big picture. Since I keep encountering the opinion  “golly gee, adverbs aren’t so bad, you’re just a stick in the mud” I thought I’d explain in more detail why adverbs are, in fact a problem and why you hear writing mentors and editors saying to never use them.

The problem with adverbs is they often indicate lazy writing. They “tell” rather than “show” and are unimportant to the story, characterization, or prose 95% of the time. They are also a symptom of someone struggling with vocabulary and lacking strong verbs to replace the modified verbs. While not every adverb is bad, it’s where you want to start cutting. You’ll find things like:

He ran swiftly.
He planted his feet certainly.
She drank her drink slowly.
They spoke loudly.

All of those adverbs can either be removed without hurting the sentence or replaced by a stronger verb. Taking them in order, here are the changes I would make and why I would make them.

1. He ran swiftly.

Well, you don’t run slowly – that’s a jog. If he’s really putting on the steam he’s probably sprinting. Or, depending on the circumstances, he could be charging. You could also go with “he hauled ass” if you want something with a little spice to it. Any of these replacements would work, depending on context. Pick one that really fits there, and run with it. Besides, which is more interesting? “He ran swiftly across the parking lot to confront his nemesis,” or, “He charged across the parking lot to confront his nemesis”?

2. He planted his feet certainly.

This is unnecessary – if you plant your feet that means you are very certain of your footing and are dropping your weight into them. It is, by nature, a move that says you’re sure. Modifying it guilds the lily.

3. She drank her drink slowly.

She sipped her drink. Now, in a case like this I would also want to know if the pace at which the character imbibed their beverage makes a difference to the story or the characterization. If it isn’t important to the scene, remove or replace it with something better. If it isn’t the drink but the pace that’s important you could say “she lingered over her drink in the café,” or something similar without resorting to adverbs.

4. They spoke loudly.

They shouted. They hollered. They yelled. They argued. All of those verbs in that list convey an emotion or a response. They can shout, holler, or yell because of noise levels or distance, or they might be doing so because they’re emotional. Arguing is also clear. Any of those words does a better job depicting what you’re trying to capture as well as omitting an unnecessary word from your sentence.

Each of these examples shows a way to remove the adverb and provide greater depth and meaning to the sentence provided. That’s what removing adverbs will do – it will deepen meaning and provide you with focus. Also, removing excess descriptors is important to pacing. If the item you are writing about isn’t crucial to the story, characterization, or setting don’t describe it more than you have to. Brevity is the soul of wit – don’t forget that!

To address the “every professional uses adverbs, why can’t I” argument, the answer is simple: As children, our parents tell us we are never allowed to touch steak knives. They don’t allow us to cut anything in the kitchen because the chances are we will hurt ourselves as well as be unable to accomplish the task.

Later on, when we are old enough to hold one safely, our parents teach us to use one and show us how. They watch over us and make sure we don’t do anything stupid, and as we do that, we learn. We hurt ourselves a few times, but we know why our parents wouldn’t let us touch them when we were younger.

Finally, as adults, we are allowed to do whatever we want with them because we know the rules. And if, by then, we don’t know the rules and cut our finger off then no one will feel sorry for us:

This story about knives could be replaced with “adverbs”. Parents can be replaced by mentors, and growing up references our journey as an author. When you first start writing, you are told never to use adverbs because it’s too easy to develop bad habits that will haunt you forever. Then, after awhile you learn adverbs aren’t all bad, but you need to be careful with them, and you understand how to use them. Finally, as a seasoned writer what you do is your own problem. You have, theoretically, learned the rules by now and are free to succeed or fail on your own merit.

People telling you not to use adverbs aren’t coming up with arbitrary rules. They aren’t blowing out their ears to  hear themselves whistle. What they’re telling you is you aren’t ready. They’re telling you that you’ve got some time to develop before you can use them effectively and to not jump the gun.


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