Why Adverbs are Bad

Posted by Christopher Kwapich on July 19, 2013

Why Adverbs are Bad

Those evil, snot-ridden adverbs creep into our fiction and tear down our sentences, foul plot lines and make the reader want to send the story straight to the garbage can or recycle bin. Every -ly word an author drops kills a pixie somewhere and feeds festering demons and evil corporations, who use this power to dominate worlds and, worst of all, the internet.

Not really. But using adverbs is a bad habit that’s best avoided. The reason for this, is that the weaken sentences—or more accurately, prevent you from writing stronger sentences. Most of the time, adverbs are a cop out.

I could quote famous authors such as Mark Twain and Stephen King on their ill feelings toward the use of adverbs, but I’ll save you the argument from authority and just tell you why adverbs are bad.

The Weakness of Adverbs

Often, they are used to prop up weak verbs. And weak verbs are boring. Even if you aren’t writing and intense, action-filled suspense novel, you want to keep the reader awake, right? Let’s compare sentences to see the difference.

She ran quickly up the stairs.

Fair enough. This sentence gets its point across. But let’s see what happens when we lose the adverb.

She raced up the stairs.

Better? Shorter, concise and more active. The first sentence by itself isn’t bad, but a whole book full of similar phrasing can be a snooze-fest in the making. Even if its supported with riveting plot, why not make it even better by sharpening up those verbs?

Here’s a paragraph full of adverbs:

Callimus walked limpingly into the room. He was very tired. The battle was won, but there was one more foe left. The baron was in the room, waving his sword crazily in the air. He was no match for Callimus, who pointed his rapier steadily at the baron. The baron yelled loudly for his guard, but none would come. Callimus had bravely killed them all.

If reading this hasn’t irritated you, it should have. Adverbs have watered down a pivotal action scene. Let’s correct it:

Callimus limped into the room. He was tired. The battle was won, but there was one more foe left. The baron was in the room, thrashing his sword about in the air. He was no match for Callimus, who levelled his rapier at the baron. The baron screamed for his guard, but none would come. Callimus had killed them all.

You could probably find more colorful verbs to liven the previous paragraph, but it’s miles better than the first. Not only did I replace the weaker phrasing, but I eliminated adverbs that weren’t really very necessary.

Adverbs in Dialogue

One of the most common occurrences of the adverb is in dialogue.

“You haven’t begun to know me,” he said softly.

Should be:

“You haven’t begun to know me,” he whispered.

Or better yet:

“I’m all yours,” she whispered softly.

Should be:

“I’m all yours,” she whispered.

I know. One would think that adding that adverb adds something to the mood of the character. But  it’s a lazy way to do it. Get rid of that adverb and do it the right way. Read the next section for clarification.

Adverbs Often Violate A Fundamental Writing Rule

I think everyone would agree that “show don’t tell” is one of writing’s fundamental rules. Often when you use adverbs you are breaking it. Let’s take the example from the above section.

“I’m all yours,” she whispered softly.

As  I stated before, it gives the appearance of adding something to the mood. Maybe it’s from a seductive scene. Perhaps the author added ‘softly’ to convey how sultry the woman was. But if the author had to add that word to set the scene, he or she has failed to show it.

A good part of showing is allowing your characters set the scene by their actions and words. Here’s another example:

“Go for your gun,” Bart said.

We can alter the meaning by adding an adverb:

“Go for your gun,” Bart said menacingly.

Now it’s on. The character’s words are a threat. And that adverb let’s us know it. But it’s the lazy way out because it doesn’t show is it’s a threat, it tells us. Here’s how we can correct it:

Bart’s hand hovered over holstered pistol and his mouth curled into a sneer. “Go for your gun,” he said.

Now we can see that Bart means business by his actions.

My Disclaimer

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all adverbs are bad all the time. But every one of them should be scrutinized. Is it necessary? Is it a cop out? Can it be shown rather than told?

If you’ve written a story or novel, do two searches. First, search “ly” for those pesky -ly words. Just count how many you have, where they are and what their role is. Next, search the word “very.” Read the sentence, then remove the word and read it again. You may be surprised at how little you actually need it.

 

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