The (not-so-clear) Truth About Adverbs

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“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King

Adverbs: those words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs (most often ending in –ly). Quietly, shyly, disparagingly, numbly, accurately—sometimes you just need to specify how something was done, right?

Sure… but maybe not in that way. The writing world treats adverbs like plague carrying super-roaches, and with good reason. Head below the fold to find out how your writing (whether it’s a novel, short story, or fanfiction) can benefit from careful consideration of this particular part of speech.

Why All the Hate?

They’re Unnecessary

Often, what the writer is hoping to accomplish with the adverb can be done by choosing a better verb or adjective.

Ran quickly = hurried, rushed, sprinted

Spoke softly = whispered, murmured

Very large = monstrous, towering, gargantuan

They’re Redundant

This is the flip-side to the previous problem. Maybe you pair an adverb with a compelling verb or adjective.

She crept quietly across the threshold.

What good is that adverb doing? Is there a way to creep that isn’t quiet? ‘Quietly’ isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know, so I can eliminate it.

They’re Lazy

You’ve heard the adage “show, don’t tell”, right? That’s all over writing advice websites. It applies to adverbs.

“That’s not the point,” Candace said angrily.

I’ve told you that Candace is angry, but I didn’t illustrate it. In a better version, I would convey her anger without having to fill in that blank for you.

"That’s not the point,” Candace said, slamming her palm against the desk.

Now, not only do you know that Candace is angry, you know that she’s prone to expressions of violence when she gets that way.

 

#NotAllAdverbs

So, sure, you could spend a few hours (days, weeks…) crossing out every –ly word (etc.) in your manuscript. But, that would miss the point. Adverbs are smoke pillars that indicate weak writing, but they are not weak writing by themselves.

There is a camp of the literary world that insists on scrubbing out every adverb in the name of "better writing”, but I find that those people are few and fanatical. When you read “eliminate adverbs”, what you’re really seeing is “be precise in your writing”. Use the right words for the right job. Sometimes, that right word will be an adverb.

I never trust someone who double-knots their shoelaces.

We’ll go to Disney World when the zombie apocalypse blows over.

Even those scandalous –ly adverbs can get in on the action as long as they serve a purpose.

“It was how she examined and selected the limbs that freaked Teller out. Gently, delicately. Almost lovingly.”

That’s from “That Which Does Not Kill You” by Matt Moore. Why does it work? Because the adverbs provide such a stark contrast to how the reader expects someone to 'examine and select limbs’. The adverbs, in this case, add something that is necessary to the story.

What Do You Do About It?

Write how you feel comfortable—adverbs and all. You shouldn’t tie down that initial brain dump of ideas and scenes with publishing dogma. Write badly, then revise. When you go back through, though, find those adverbs and consider each one carefully. What does the sentence lose if you remove it? Is there a more descriptive way to paint the scene for the reader?

Don’t follow rules just because they exist. Understand why people with more experience than you created them in the first place. Once you know that, you know when you benefit from breaking them. Your writing will be stronger for it.