What’s So Bad About Adverbs?
By Evan Braun
If you’ve ever worked with a professional editor, there’s a good chance you got back a manuscript with half of your adverbs flagged. Indeed, this is one of the more common pieces of writing advice out there. A simple Google search will refer you to a litany of articles explaining why adverbs are the ultimate evil and have no place in your work.
They’re terribly, horribly, disgustingly redundant. (See what I did there?)
Of course, this is an exaggeration. How could it not be? Defenders of the adverb rightly point out that it’s just a part of speech, like nouns and verbs and adjectives and conjunctions. Adverbs, they say, are needlessly vilified.
I’m in both camps. Use an adverb correctly, and it’s your friend. Use it wrongly, as so many are, and it’s your enemy.
“Hold on a sec,” you may say with some trepidation. “What’s an adverb?”
Good question! Maybe we should have started with that. Just like an adjective is a word that modifies a noun—“The flower (noun) is fragrant (adjective).”—an adverb is a word that modifies a verb—“The car accelerates (verb) quickly (adverb).” And adverbs also modify adjectives—“The novel was compellingly (adverb) long (verb).”
One last caveat: not all adverbs end in –ly. Any word that modifies a verb or adjective is an adverb. “That’s a very pretty hat.” Spot the adverb? It’s the word very.
So why are adverbs controversial? I suppose they aren’t, not in and of themselves. Their overuse certainly is, though.
In a nutshell, it all comes down to redundancy and imprecision—with an emphasis on that last word— imprecision.
As an editor, I think I just might pull my last hair out (and yes, I’m developing a bald spot right on top of my head, fortunately in a place that isn’t easily glimpsed—yet) if I spot one more case of “He shouted loudly” or “She ate hungrily” or “They ran quickly.”
These are all examples of redundant adverbs, since all shouts are loud, all running is quick, and generally speaking food is almost always eaten by hungry people.
Now consider the following dialogue:
“Don’t go in there!” Mary said warningly.
“But I don’t have a choice,” Dwayne replied abjectly.
That first line, from Mary, is an obvious warning, and Dwayne’s reply is obviously abject. The reader doesn’t need to be told these things, because the context of the actual dialogue establishes them.
So if you’re going to use an adverb, be conscious about it. Take a long hard look at it and decide whether you really, truly, verily need that word there. (See what I did there, again?)
But of course this is just good advice for all writing. You should take a long hard look at every word you write and decide whether it needs to be there. Embracing this mindset is a key part of any person’s transition from an amateur writer to a professional one.
Which is a helpful segue into my argument against imprecision.
To kick this off, let’s go back to that especially annoying adverb I mentioned earlier in this post— very. It may be the worst adverb I can think of, and it’s abused just about every time it appears in a piece of writing. Another abusive word to avoid: so.
That building over there is very tall! That comedian I saw on TV last night was so funny. That noise is very loud. My friend just said something to me very quietly.
In all these cases, the adverbs very and so can be placed by using more precise, and more interesting, language. That building is colossal. The comedian was hilarious. The noise was deafening. My friend whispered something to me.
Also, it has been said that when you use too many adverbs, you’re imposing too much of your interpretation on the events of a story that instead should be left up to the reader’s imagination. Indeed, there is some truth to this, because as the writer you don’t need to control every aspect of the reader’s experience. By doing so, you run the risk of overriding your readers. It’s okay to do this every once in a while, and you won’t always be able to predict when it happens, but if you’re constantly overriding them you might just set them back on their heels one time too often. And then they’ll close the book and never reopen it.
Besides, adding a lot of adverbs and adjectives can take a clear and concise piece of writing and make it really wordy, and sometimes a lot less clear and concise.
So yes, adverbs do need to come with a word of caution. But they shouldn’t be eliminated altogether. Just use them well, in moderation, and for effect. They’ll add something to your story, of course, but don’t rely on them like a crutch.
If you want to distill this advice down to something simple, just remember to be precise in your word choices. If you challenge yourself to look at your adverbs with a critical eye, and replace them with more effective language, I predict you’ll turn a corner in your command of the craft of writing.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.