Writing: Sinful Adverbs

In recent years, adverbs (words used to modify verbs) have fallen into great disfavor.  Adverb opponents insist they indicate weak writing.  Go to any writing forum critique board and you’ll see any and all adverbs swatted away like mosquitoes.

I’m going to be heretical and declare,  “There’s not a darn thing wrong with adverbs.”

If adverbs in themselves indicate weak writing than many of our most critically acclaimed and beloved authors including Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Steinbeck, and Austen sure fooled a lot of people.

It is the overuse of them that indicates weak writing.

It often takes a writer a long time to learn less is more.  Precision is key.

A sure-sign of an amateur writer are pages cluttered with adverbs.   Uncertain of their writing ability,  they fear they must spell out everything.   None of their characters simply speak, stand, walk, cry, or laugh.

“He ran quickly”

“She screamed loudly”

“She whispered softly”

“John noticeably cringed as the woman on stage sang horribly.”

Avoid adverbs that are redundant and clutter the sentence at all costs.

Imagine a little girl receiving a toy doll.   She smiles.  That is it. You would not write, “She smiled, happily.”  The fact she smiled already showed she was happy.

So when is it okay to use adverbs?

Here is a quote from John Gardner: “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously—a startling word that makes the scene spring to life (adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox).”

And here is an example from Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White : “I wound my way down slowly over the Heath, enjoying the divine stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every side of me.”

One may argue the word, “slowly” is not necessary.   Yes, the sentence is clear without it.  However, it also does not clutter the sentence.   Rather than being redundant, it adds a certain nuance.   So in this example, the choice of whether or not to use, “slowly” is a stylistic one.

Think of adverbs as spice.   Carefully placed they add a certain tone and color.   Too much and they overtake the main flavor of the dish.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy. I am horrible about adverbs, and use them much too liberally in first drafts. I spend a good bit of time during a second draft going through the pieces with a fine tooth comb (aka a program I found through AW)to cull all the adverbs.

    It’s almost embarassing how many there are, but to be fair, I think adverbs are an excellent short-hand during the first draft. The trick is to come back later and flesh it out, dropping the adverbs where it makes sense (I agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with those lovely weeds), and keeping the ones that work.

    But geesh, they sure sneak into the work easily!

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Morning to ya. 🙂

    First drafts are meant to be embarrassing. Actually, you should see my second one. We’re still in the cringe state.

    Oh, the link to your blog isn’t working. I’d like to check it out.

  3. Do you ever stop cringing? The second I quit, I regret it. The last time I thought I’d done a great job on a piece, it still came back with a big fat “R” on it. *shrug* Just keep plugging away, right? At least I know adverbs won’t be my downfall! I hope.

    I fiddled with the link…hope it works now. 🙂

  4. Hey Jen,

    Nope! I never stop cringing. Here’s a good example: This morning as I was rereading this very post, I noticed I’d written, “None of their characters simply speak,stand,walk, cry, or walk”. I had “walk” twice! That sure made me cringe.

    Gawd- you can never proofread enough! It’s frightening. Another reason beta readers with fresh eyes are so important!

    I tried the link again. I keep getting, “Blog Not Found” 😦

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