Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why No Adverbs?

I recently came across some warnings for fiction writers against using adverbs, those -ly words that modify adjectives and verbs. (I even used one in the previous sentence: recently.) I understand that overuse of adverbs could make your writing look silly and that overuse of any particular tool is to be avoided. However, these writers insisted that adverbs should be shunned, that you should exorcise them from your prose and rewrite any sentence containing one. In short, using adverbs is bad writing for fiction writers. Unfortunately, these writers did not explain why adverbs are bad for fiction. When someone states an absolute rule about language, particularly when they don't explain it, warning signals go off for me. Adverbs shade the meaning of the words they modify. They are grammatical and an accepted part of speech. I've seen them used by well-respected writers. So, what's behind the injunctions against adverbs?

Here's some advice I gathered in my search for the case against adverbs.

Problem #1: Adverbs are redundant when paired with strong verbs. For example: "clenched his teeth tightly"; "moped sadly"; "screamed loudly"; "whispered quietly." In each case, the adverb adds no additional meaning to the verb. There is no other way to mope than with sadness and when someone whispers, they are being quiet.

Problem #2: Writers misuse adverbs to explain dialogue, combining emotions with speaker attributions when those emotions should be clear from the dialogue itself. If the dialogue carries its own weight, adding flying buttresses with adverbs makes it appear weak. For example: "You snapped my pet stick," he said accusingly. The dialogue records an accusation. Nothing is gained from telling the reader again.

Problem #3: Adverbs are used to prop up weak verbs. A better solution is to replace those weak verb/adverb pairings with a stronger verb. For example: replace "frowning angrily" with scowling; "running quickly" with sprinting; "petting softly" with caressing; "moving slowly" with creeping.

Problem #4: Adverbs lead writers to tell rather than show. Instead of telling readers that a character "reads incessantly", show us the stack of books and magazines blocking the door; his reading glasses in the front pocket of his shirt; the many scars from paper cuts crisscrossing his fingers.

Problem #5: Adverbs lead to subtle point-of-view problems. For example, Joe is the POV character but the writer states that "Sue looked at the merchant incredulously." If there is a physical or verbal cue that suggests Sue's attitude, we don't need the adverb. It's redundant. If there is no cue, then we are invading another character's thoughts and momentarily stepping into a different POV.

So, should you ever use an adverb? They are permissible in a few cases. It's reasonable to employ them in dialogue. People use them when they talk. In other cases, an adverb is adequate to create a mental image and rewriting makes the prose wordy. Consider this example: "The man stood silently at the window" versus "The man stood at the window making no noise." The instance with the adverb is more concise. The rewrite is longer and draws unnecessary attention to the phrase "making no noise".

It is very easy to fall into the adverb traps. The good news is that they are easy to find. Search your manuscript for "ly" and consider each instance. You will be surprised how much richer your writing will be when you eradicate those adverbial weeds from your prose. Happy weeding.


  1. An even quicker way to find the adverbs is to use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It also lets you know when you have too many.

  2. I think this is true for all such "rules." Adverbs, passive voice and "was" should all be used sparingly. But some writers will create an awkward sentence to avoid having a single one of these no-no's in their work. That's taking the rule too far. Sometimes--rarely, yes, but sometimes--these things are the best, or only, choice.

  3. I went to a writing session this week and we were told not to use adverbs. She explained, but I hadn't understood. This helped me a lot and I hope to avoid using them when possible. Thanks!

  4. This explains a lot about the shunning of adverbs. Thanks! =)

  5. Thank you! I've been wondering why they're frowned upon...and now I now what to look for when I edit/proof my work!