Why Adverbs Suck

Dog LeashI’ve been coming across a lot of stylistic guides over the past few days … perhaps due to hththt‘s posts on 9Rules about great writing tutorials online. A lot of them are good, and a lot of them talk about the horror of adverbs.

What are adverbs?

Adverbs are words that are used in writing to answer questions such as how?, when?, where? … and so on. (Wikipedia link)

A few examples: “I love you,” she said tenderly.

He threw the ball expertly; the crowd cheered as it arced through the air.

“Kill her.” He said coldly, “And then leave the body here to rot.”

So? What seems to be the problem? These sentences seem perfectly alright on their own. But allow me rewrite them, and let’s see what happens:

“I love you,” she said, her hands tracing the outline of his face.

He threw the ball in a single fluid motion; the crowd cheered as it arced through the air.

“Kill her.” He said, eyes cold and distant, “And then leave the body here to rot.”

Replacing the adverb in all three cases strengthens the impact of the sentence and adds a degree of depth: in the first example, you knew she said it tenderly – but the rewritten version tells you how exactly the tenderness was expressed.

In a sentence: If used incorrectly, adverbs can blunt the impact and power of a verb.

This brings us to our next problem: How can you tell if an adverb is used correctly?

The solution is actually pretty simple. Reread your writing and take note of the adverbs used (typically ending with -ly). Ask yourself this question: “Is this adverb absolutely necessary?

An example of a necessary adverb:

Ceri got to his feet slowly, a mild headache throbbing between his temples.

The use of slowly cannot be replaced or expanded upon, and is in fact necessary to convey the pain Ceri is experiencing and the effect it has on his movements. Another example:

Yuki calmly blocked a forward blow; Bishop’s palm streaked upwards and a corresponding streak of falling bricks and disintegrating mortar appeared in the side of the hall.

The calmly here can actually be expanded upon, but there is no way of doing so without muddling up the sentence. This is due to the fact that in long sentences it is absolutely vital to keep both subject (Yuki) and verb (blocked) at the very front … anything between will just confuse the reader.

Let’s end with the bad use of an adverb:

Suddenly, there was an eruption of searing white light.

And how can we improve that without changing the meaning of the sentence? Simple:

There was a sudden eruption of searing white light.

It’s pretty amazing what proper adverb usage can do for your writing. The next time you’re flipping through a magazine or a newspaper grab a pencil and watch out for them. Good writers use them sparingly. Do the same.

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Category: Learning To Write