The Good, The Bad, And The Adverbs

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Adverbs. If  you discuss the art of writing, these little modifying words are sure to come up. Most writers, especially those who study (or have been educated in) the practical application of the art form, will tell you that adverbs are bad. At best, they will tell you to avoid using them frequently…but many will stand on the belief that they should be discarded all together.

But why? Ahem…

Adverbs. If you frequently discuss the art of writing, these little modifying words are sure to eventually come up. Most writers, especially those who diligently study (or have been thoroughly educated in) the practical application of the art form, will fervently tell you that adverbs are bad. At best, they will tell you reservedly to avoid using them frequently…but many will firmly stand on the belief that they should be unquestioningly discarded all together.

Both of the above passages carried the same message, but the second version was cumbersome and wordy. Because of adverbs. Yes, it’s an extreme example of adverb use, but I wrote it to make a point.

99% of the time, adverbs are unnecessary and redundant.

Writing, like all forms of communication, is made better through efficiency. Never use a paragraph when a sentence will do the job. If one word can express your meaning, don’t add more words to “flower it up.” Examples:

  • He ran quickly through the door. (Was there some confusion about him running slowly?)
  • The tool was completely useless. (Can something be almost useless? It’s either useless or it’s not. If it’s not useless, then an adverb isn’t the solution…choosing a better word than “useless” is.)
  • The gunshot wound hurt badly. (Oh! I thought it hurt “goodly.” Thanks for making it clear.)
  • He was gloriously championed as the hero of the city. (Much better than being “apprehensively championed,” I guess.)
  • She whispered the words quietly. (That’s good. I friggin’ hate when people whisper so loud it distracts everyone in the room.)

So, what are the motives of adverb offense?

  • The writer thinks it sounds good. This is probably the most common reason why you’ll find the little verb-modifying daffodils sprouting up all over someone’s work. They see adverbs as special effects on a movie screen. Using them to provide detail is bound to light up the imagery in the reader’s mind, right? (No.)
  • The writer isn’t efficient. Unpolished or inexperienced writers will often pepper their work with descriptors, adjectives and adverbs because they haven’t learned how to go George Foreman on their work (“Knock Out the Fat!”) The ability to trim the unnecessary words from our writing for the sake of readability is something that comes with experience, editing and effort.
  • The writer lacks a strong command of vocabulary. Adverbs can be used to modify a word that “doesn’t quite” mean what we want to say. Of course, the correct solution to this problem is to find the correct word, not to modify the wrong word.

Caveat! There are situations where an adverb seems necessary, but none of the above applies. Most likely, the solution can be found in the words around the word you’re tempted to modify. You don’t need to say “The man ruffled through the papers hurriedly” if you want to convey his urgency. That’s lazy. You should be conveying urgency through the balance of the scene. Convey it through his movements, his thoughts, the events around him. If you do this well, the reader will understand that he’s in a hurry. (It’s good to remember that readers don’t need everything spelled out to the finest detail.)

Another Caveat! Adverbs are not evil. They’re just misunderstood…and quite frankly, they make writing look terrible when they’re used ineffectively. The best way to ensure that you’re only using adverbs when absolutely necessary is to make an effort not to use them at all. When one slips into your work, cut it out and ask yourself if the message is still the same. If it’s not, try to find ways to convey that message without sticking the adverb back in.

Slainte!

The Adverb Challenge: Do you want to play the devil’s advocate and defend adverbs? Feel free to post an example of what you would consider “non-awful” adverb use and let’s explore the possibilities. (I’m not saying it will be better without the adverb, but it will probably be better without the adverb.)

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