What’s wrong with adverbs?

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. An adverb is a word that modifies or describes another word in your sentence—usually verbs, other adverbs, or adjectives. They are important tools and can provide necessary information, but it’s important to be aware of how you’re using them in your writing.

Adverbs get a bad rep when writers use adverbs to prop up lazy writing. Like many writing “rules”, it all comes back to the age old show, don’t tell principle and conciseness.

Look at the following two paragraphs:

“You’re going to pay,” Alex said icily. He walked angrily out of the room, leaving Bob to stare stupidly after him. The door slammed loudly as he left.

“You’re going to pay.” Alex said. He stalked out of the room, leaving Bob to stand there, frozen, one hand still raised to reach for his coffee mug. He’d had never heard Alex sound so cold. The door slammed as he left.

These two paragraphs say almost the same thing, but the difference in strength of the writing is apparent. The adverbs tell us how Alex and Bob feel and act, but we don’t need to be told in the second paragraph; we know.

In some cases, the adverbs were telling us something the verb already told us, like with slammed and loudly. Loudness is already conveyed in slammed. There is no other way to slam a door than to do it loudly, so this adverb a wasted word and should be cut.

Should adverbs be completely banished?

No. Like all writing rules, avoiding adverbs is by no means ironclad. If there is a sentence that this one adverb brighten up, and nothing else will do, by all means use it. If you need it to convey information, use it. But whenever you come across an adverb while editing your writing, you should consider:

a) What does it add that is unique?

b) Is there any better way I can convey the information?

c) Is it part of a dialogue tag?

If the adverb gives unique information, then it serves a purpose. Often though, you’ll find the information given by the adverb is already shown elsewhere in your text. Readers don’t like it when you repeat things they already know.

If it’s a part of a dialogue tag, it’s best to remove the adverb. As discussed on my previous post on said, there are better ways to convey information in dialogue, through interspersing action between the characters talking. However, adverbs are natural in everyday speech, so they definitely belong inside quotation marks. You can use them to make your characters speak realistically.

Tips for avoiding unnecessary adverbs
  • Choose more powerful verbs. The English language is rife with verbs, many of which mean something similar but have different connotations. You can write, but you can also scribble, pen, address, jot, compose, draft, or scrawl. Select a strong verb, and you will have no need for an adverb.
  • Focus on small details. Instead of tapping on something nervously, describe their tapping so that it shows their nerves.
  • Don’t be afraid of short sentences. They are useful and don’t need to be filled with fluff to make them longer.
  • Leave out very and really.

It’s hard to let go of purposeless adverbs. I, like most writers, find them all the time in my writing and have to prune them out when editing. Make sure the adverbs you’re using serve a purpose, and your writing will be stronger and more engaging.

However, adverbs should not be stressing you out during the first draft. Concentrate on getting your story down, and worry about adverbs or other style issues when editing.

2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with adverbs?

  1. I like how you worked in all the “icy” and “cold” words in the second example, so that even though you cut “icily” we still got to experience it through “frozen” and “cold.” Nice job!

    By the way, you might be interested in our Writers Club, https://ryanlanz.com/writers-club/. We network with writing professionals to help authors, wherever they are in their writing journey, and we offer free editing and even cover design as a perk.

    Thanks for sharing!


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