Sunday, May 30, 2010

Adverbs: Are They That Terrible?

Adverbs are words that describe verbs, and they usually end in 'ly'.  (Quickly, loudly, slowly... etc.)  If you're a writer, you've probably heard that adverbs should be limited.  But why?  What is it about adverbs that weaken our writing?  I've pondered this, and have read many articles on the subject, and have come to recognize three distinct reasons why adverbs are weak.

1.  Many times they are redundant.  They repeat repeat what you just just said said.  Here's an example:  "She ran quickly down the street."  Do you need to tell us that she ran quickly?  Do people run slowly?  Of course not.  If you were to say, "She ran down the street", your readers would understand that she's running, and of course she's running quickly.  There's no no need need to repeat repeat yourself yourself.

Here are some examples of other redundant adverb pairs:  Loudly shouted, painfully stabbed, snarled menacingly, confidently strode, and my favorite, yelled angrily.

So, what's the big deal?  Who cares if they are redundant?  I like using adverbs.  They liven up my writing.  (That's what you're thinking, isn't it?)  I know, I've been there.  It's hard to let go of them.  But if the adverb is redundant, then you don't need it.  And you should always cut unnecessary words.  This is important, so I'll say it again.  You should always cut unnecessary words.  It will tighten up your writing.  Trust me.

2.  If the adverb isn't redundant, than perhaps you are using a weak verb.  "She went slowly down the street."  (I thought I'd stick with the same theme.)  If you cut the adverb, we don't get the same picture.  But, couldn't we change 'went' to a stronger verb?  (It isn't a very descriptive verb, is it?)  Let's see what changing it would do to your mental picture.  "She trudged down the street."  Ah, this shows something that 'went slowly' didn't show.  This would be appropriate if she were being forced to go somewhere she didn't want to.  Now, let's change it again.  What about "She wandered down the street."  A much different mental picture.  Maybe here she is simply daydreaming.

Take a peek at your adverb and see if it's paired up with a weak verb.  The word "look" is usually suspect for me.  "She looked closely at the markings on his arm."  How about replacing 'looked closely at' with 'examined'?  "She looked lovingly at his face."  What about using 'gazed'?  "She looked angrily at him."  I'd change it to 'glared'.

3.  The last reason to cut an adverb would be because it "tells" instead of "shows".  We hear that all the time, don't we?  Show, don't tell.  Well, adverbs sometimes tell.  Especially when they are used in dialogue tags.  Let's look at an example.  "Don't tell me what to do," she said angrily.  If you don't know she's saying this angrily by the context, you should add more context instead of the 'telling' adverb.  Show us her anger.  Maybe she can slam the door, or the little vein in her neck is sticking out.  Are her fists clenched?  Let us see her as you do.  Don't just tell us she said it angrily.

My biggest pet peeve is probably when writers use "suddenly".  I cringe when I read it.  It tells instead of shows, and annoys me to no end.  And guess what?  The other day when I was going through my work in progress I found one!  Arg.  (So, yes, even the most annoying adverbs do creep into my writing as well.)  The reason I dislike "suddenly", is because it's an oxymoron.   "Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and Frank jumped."  If you're in Frank's point of view, he wouldn't know there was going to be a knock at the door until it happened, so don't forewarn the reader that something is going to happen by saying "suddenly".  Just let it happen.  It's more powerful that way.  "There was a knock at the door, and Frank jumped."  The reader can experience that knock on the door at the same time Frank does, and if it's a particularly tense moment, the reader might jump too.  (Plus, it really is cheesy to say "suddenly" this happened, and "all of a sudden" that happened.)

Now I do want to point out that I don't agree with the people who think you must cut every single adverb out of your novel.  I think that's taking it to the extreme.  Sometimes for brevity it's better to use an adverb and get on with it.  Especially if you don't want to dwell on it.  Here's an example.  "She peered at him curiously."  I could cut 'curiously' and instead describe how her face shows this, but how do you describe that subtle look of curiosity?  And how many words would it take to show this, instead of just using the adverb and moving on?

Okay, here's your homework.  Go through your current work in progress and use the 'find' feature in Word.  Search for 'ly', and see how many adverbs there are that you can cut.  Be brutal.  It is very hard to cut them!  As writers, we do love our words, don't we?  It is difficult, but you will have tighter sentences if you can cut some of those redundant, weak, or telling adverbs.

After you do your homework, come back and post in the comments section the worst adverb you found.  I'll cheer you on for being able to cut it!


  1. But I love my adverbs *cries*.

    Seriously, very good explanation of why they can be a problem. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Ellen! (I love my adverbs too. *cries with you*)

  3. This is great! I've been told to cut my adverbs before, but wasn't given a reason why except that "adverbs are evil." This information will help me improve my writing. :)

  4. Thank you, Sarah! So glad I could help.

  5. I'd like to point out a little something about using "suddenly." A little devil's advocate, I guess.

    Most fiction is written in past tense, which means you are writing something that happened in the past. It's already happened, so you can reason from that that the narrator does know what will happen. So using suddenly is okay. There may be many other reasons why suddenly shouldn't be used, but I don't think the narrator not knowing quite cuts it in past tense.

    Again, just food for thought.

  6. Excellent article - thank you Victorine!


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