Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Goodbye Adverbs

We writers are often madly, truly, deeply in love with adverbs. Really. Maybe it’s time to set them free. Give them the boot. Allow them take wing. Alex Telander of Book Banter is back with an informative lesson on the subject. Welcome back, Alex

Adverbs, Good or Bad?
Whether you’re Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King, or just about any writer in between, then you probably have something to say about the creative writing device known as the adverb.  It’ll probably be something to the effect of that you hate them and use them sparingly . . . oops, there was one; you’ll use them rarely . . . dammnit, there’s another . . . you’ll use them few and far between.  There we go, no adverb.
 But did you see what I did there?  I used more words to describe something that one little adverb would’ve done excellently.  (There’s another.)  And therein lies part of the great debate on the use of adverbs.  You have a head-to-head with two of the rules of creative writing: one being to use brevity, to use the least amount of words possible; and the other to use as few adverbs as possible.

In my years of writing, I’ve kind of switched back and forth on the use of adverbs, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion now that a number of writers have: it’s okay to use adverbs, but you really want to avoid using them, which is really the key to revision and rewrites.  That’s where you can get rid of most of those suckers.  I do find that I use plenty of adverbs in a first draft, and then work diligently to cut out as many of them as possible.  But I think one big reason writers prefer to err on the side of not using them is because it leads to lazy writing.  You pick up just about any example of popular fiction, or your latest James Patterson, and you will find the pages swimming in adverbs, because it’s much easier to throw in some adverbs to quickly get the concept across to the reader than to work at and use more specific and powerful words to create a more evocative sentence.

For example, below is a short bit of action writing with plenty of adverbs (I’ve put the adverbs in italics):

“Ellen ducked down quickly, feeling the bullet whiz by overhead.  She peeked over the top, looking for her target, and speedily dropped down again, as more bullets missed her.  She nervously sucked in a breath, counted to three, then jumped up and opened fire, letting her hand and eyes skillfully do the work, and mercilessly killed her assailant.”

And now we have the same piece of action writing with more evocative and descriptive words used in place of the adverbs: 

“Ellen ducked down, dropping to her knees, feeling the bullet whiz by overhead.  She peeked over the top, looking for her target, and dropped down again, smashing her knees against the ground, as more bullets missed her.  She choked in a breath, counted to three, then jumped up and opened fire, letting her hand and eyes work like a perfect pitcher, and shot her assailant between the eyes.”
It’s essentially the same little snippet of scene, with the same actions being conveyed.  Ellen is shot at once, then twice, and then she shoots her assailant.  But the key is in how you tell it.  The first version adds speed and builds suspense with the adverbs, but the second version does this and more.  In place of those adverbs are little pieces of description that create a concrete image in the reader’s mind.  Instead of ducking down quickly, Ellen drops to her knees.  Instead of speedily doing it again, this time she smashes her knees against the ground.  Instead of nervously breathing, she chokes in a breath.  Instead of skillfully looking and firing, I use a simile to link her with a good pitcher in baseball.  And finally, instead of mercilessly killing her assailant, she shoots him (or her) between the eyes.  
Each of these descriptive clauses add more to the scene and the writing, creating a stronger and fuller picture in the reader’s head, and ultimately makes for a better scene, story and overall book.

As a reader, you may feel different.  You may in fact prefer those adverbs, like that particular style of writing, which is perfectly fine.  To each reader their own.  But I also think you’re missing out on something wonderful about the English language and its range and breadth and possibility.  Some of my favorite writers who do this very well include Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Seanan McGuire, Dan Simmons, and Haruki Murakami.  And there of course many, many more.  

So the next time you sit down to read whatever book you’re currently reading, pay some attention to the use of the adverbs.  Sometimes it’s the perfect word that fits and nothing else will do, and sometimes (in fact often with some authors) there are simply too many adverbs and it’s just sloppy writing.  And other times there’s a piece of great writing that you can’t help being impressed by, a piece that could’ve been easily replaced by a weak adverb, but wasn’t.


  1. Ah, adverbs. I'll struggle to get rid of them and then read the current popular work and find them everywhere and slap my forehead.

    I think your first example "...use them sparingly" is fine. Adverbs themselves aren't evil. The paragraph you edited is a great example of doing the hard work to write well.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. I've experienced the same thing, Kai. Guess one has to be a best seller before the "use more adverbs" rule kicks in.