Writer’s Insights: Destroy All Adverbs?
Once upon a time, I took a creative writing class. My professor dispensed all the usual advice, including one of the more infamous ones: Eliminate adverbs from your writing.
Every time she returned assignments, mine would be covered in mark-up, directing me to remove adverbs. This woman was on a mission. Those adverbs had to come out. Each and every last adverb would be eradicated from her students’ writing. Adverbs, she seemed to believe, had no place in good writing.
She’s not alone in this belief; many people argue good writers don’t use adverbs. They don’t need them, because they pick such strong verbs. The verbs convey all the meaning you could ever need. Why on earth would you need to modify one?
Stephen King himself is a proponent of this stance. One of his more infamous quotes is “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
What Is an Adverb?
An adverb is, simply, a word that modifies a verb. Much like an adjective modifies a noun (e.g., a big car, a red car, a big red car), an adverb modifies a verb to tell the reader not just what was done, but how it was done.
Adverbs typically end in -ly, although not every word that ends in -ly is an adverb, and not every adverb ends in -ly. I just used one, though: Typically. This word modifies the verb “end,” telling you that adverbs often or almost always end in -ly. I can’t say “adverbs end in -ly,” because it doesn’t happen all the time. Saying that indicates they do, which is untrue.
Other adverbs include “very” (e.g., she ran very fast).
Why People Hate Them
The idea that adverbs are indicative of weak writing isn’t entirely off the mark. In many cases, people use adverbs to modify a “weak” verb, instead of using a “stronger” verbs. Strong verbs don’t need to be propped up, because they contain inherent information about how the action was done. “Weak” verbs, by contrast, don’t contain that information.
Consider the following:
"I don't think that's fair," she said angrily. "I don't think that's fair," she snapped.
You can see the difference. Using “snapped” indicates how the action was done, without the use of the adverb. Eliminating the adverb here tightens the writing; it means you have to use fewer words to describe the same thing.
Furthermore, “snapped” is more specific. “Said angrily” could mean she said it under her breath or that she yelled.
Unfortunately, some people have taken the war on adverbs to the extreme, and they seek to destroy them wherever they find them–even where they’re necessary. While I think we can all agree “he dashed” is better than “he ran very quickly,” you’re never going to eliminate adverbs from your writing entirely.
Why? Because you need them. Consider “very” and “really.” They both function as adverbs–and writing without them is, well, very difficult.
Such stringent avoidance of this category of words could mean you end up writing wordier sentences, just to avoid the adverb.
It could also mean you end up using more and more ridiculous synonyms–words most people have never encountered in their lives. While there’s nothing wrong with a ten-cent word or two (most readers enjoy the chance to add to their vocabulary), there is a problem when your writing is chock-full of them.
Spot the Adverb
Let’s take a look at a sample of my writing. I tend to use adverbs frequently. I could probably improve this aspect of my writing, so let’s see what a revised sample would look like.
He patted Aleks awkwardly on the shoulder. The blond pulled back, his grin impossibly wider. “Shouldn’t you be abed at this hour, Cousin?” “We might say the same of you,” Tarquin retorted. “I’m sure you know it well. He who sleeps might lose his throne.” Aleks snorted in amusement. “Hm, well,” he said, “I believe we might have something to aid in that.” He turned away from the embrace. Tarquin met the gaze of a dark-haired young man, standing just behind Aleks. Aleks landed a hand on his shoulder, said, “My principle spouse,” and then turned right about, peering through the crowd that had gathered as his servants and retainers poured in from the night. “A pleasure,” Tarquin said gruffly, and the man nodded. “Ah-ha!” Aleks cried. “Wonderful—bring that here.” He waved a couple of times, then pivoted again, his robes swinging wildly. He grinned at Tarquin. “I’ve brought you a little present, dearest cousin.” Tarquin frowned. “I know we should technically wait until the sun has risen, you know—a coronation present before the coronation? But—who cares?” Tarquin sighed. “Certainly not you, Cousin.” Aleks never had been one to stand on ceremony, that much was true. The blond clapped his hands, and several of the page boys stomped forward, bringing with them their furled pennants and standards. Behind them, there were several pallbearers, who brought forth a litter, settled it down on the ground.
Editing in Action
Let’s work through each of these instances.
He patted Aleks
awkwardlyon the shoulder.
How can I fix this sentence? I can simply drop “awkwardly,” thus eliminating the adverb. I could also pick a stronger verb than “patted,” such as “tapped” (although it has the wrong connotation) or “brushed” (which implies the wrong motion).
“A pleasure,” Tarquin
said grufflygrunted, and the man nodded.
Here, I’d be better to use a stronger verb. “Said gruffly” is okay, but using “grunted” is stronger.
He waved a couple of times, then pivoted again, his robes swirling
In this instance, I could either change “swinging wildly” to another verb, such as “swirling,” or I could eliminate the adverb “wildly” and leave “swinging.”
“I know we should
technicallywait until the sun has risen in all technicality, you know—a coronation present before the coronation? But—who cares?”
This sentence provides more of a challenge. I could just drop the adverb entirely, or I can add in the phrase “in all technicality.” It has the same effect, but it’s wordier.
Certainlynot you, Cousin.”
This is another challenge. “Certainly” can’t be replaced easily, unless it’s with another adverb (such as “definitely”), or making the sentence wordier (“I am certain it is not you, Cousin.”) In this case, better to simply eliminate it.
The Argument for Keeping Some
As demonstrated, some adverbs can and should be eliminated. Yet not every adverb can be removed with ease. And they probably shouldn’t be either.
See, the suggestion of the extremists is you don’t need adverbs. You shouldn’t use them because they’re a useless class of words. If you just use strong verbs, you’ll never need an adverb.
It’s a nice little fantasy. While there may be particular words we don’t need, it’s not really reasonable to suggest we don’t need an entire class of words. While I advocate making better choices, you may not be able to avoid adverbs at every turn.
And you probably shouldn’t. When used judiciously, they can be a great addition to your writing.