Why Should Authors Avoid Adverbs?
How popular writing advice over-simplifies the problem.
A common piece of writing advice I see floating around is that adverbs are bad, you shouldn’t use them in your writing, and the best authors use adverbs extremely sparingly. As a writer, I know how hard it can be to actually do this and I’ve grappled with trying to improve my work following this advice in the past. With time and experience, however, I’ve realized that this advice is given in a bit of an over-simplified light.
Now, there’s no question that adverbs can be over-used and are a common crutch, especially for beginning writers. Let’s put together a quick little paragraph to use as an example.
“What did you do this weekend?” Steve asked suspiciously, holding his coffee cup too tightly.
Barbara blinked innocently at him. She glanced away nervously, softly asking, “Whatever do you mean?”
Steve slammed his cup forcefully and loudly onto the nearby table. “You know what I’m talking about!” he said angrily.
Barbara immediately jumped to her feet. “I’ve had enough of this!”
Even the untrained eye should be able to tell that this paragraph is awkward and clunky. It’s overdosed on adverbs, and it’s closer to how I used to write when I was really young. A more cleaned up version might look something like this:
“What did you do this weekend?” Steve asked, studying her through narrowed eyes. He was white-knuckling the handle of his coffee cup.
Barbara blinked at him for a moment, doe-eyed, before glancing away and murmuring, “Whatever do you mean?”
Steve slammed his cup onto the nearby table, bellowing, “You know what I’m talking about!"
Barbara jumped to her feet. “I’ve had enough of this!”
While the second example certainly isn’t Shakespeare or Jane Austen, it’s noticeably smoother and less awkward than the first. That must be because I removed all the adverbs, right?
Not even slightly.
First of all, let’s explain what an adjective actually is: A part of speech that modifies verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and sometimes entire sentences (Grammarly; Education First; Parts of Speech). When I was in elementary school, we were taught that an easy way to identify an adverb was by the common -ly suffix, but this doesn’t capture the whole picture. The -ly suffix is common in adjectives indicating manner (suspiciously, tightly, softly, angrily, etc.), but that’s not the only way adjectives modify words. In actuality, there are four ways: manner, place, time, and degree (Parts of Speech).
So in the corrected example above, I basically only removed adjectives of manner. There are still adjectives of place (away and nearby), time (this weekend), and degree (enough). But if I removed those adverbs, the scene would be a lot weaker, and it wouldn’t make sense in some places. “I’ve had this” isn’t a very clear declaration compared to “I’ve had enough of this.”
So what’s happening? Why and when are adverbs actually a problem in writing, and what should writer’s do to avoid them?
In my experience, adverbs are a problem when they’re a crutch, and they become a crutch when you’re edging into the territory of telling instead of showing. Going back to the original example again, “said angrily” is much weaker than “bellowed” in part because it’s telling me Steve is angry instead of showing his anger. Similarly, “asked suspiciously” doesn’t paint a picture the way “studying her through narrowed eyes” does. Writing is almost always better when you put an image in readers’ heads that they can pull meaning and emotion from, rather than outright telling them what those meanings and emotions are.
Another problem I see with adverbs is using them to overmodify. In the first example, I didn’t need to include “forcefully and loudly” because “slammed” already conveys that. Words like “immediately” and “suddenly” also have a similar effect. By overemphasizing points like this, you often render them less impactful and less meaningful for readers.
Basically, when people say adverbs are bad and you should avoid them in writing, they’re attacking the symptoms of a larger problem rather than addressing the problem itself. Adverbs aren’t bad; telling instead of showing is. Adverbs aren’t bad; overemphasis that weakens the message is. No part of language is bad or should be wholly excluded from writing. Language is a tool to be used and it takes practice and patience to learn how to use it.
Parts of Speech. ‘Adverb: Definition and Examples.’ Retrieved October 25, 2019 (http://partofspeech.org/adverb/).
Grammarly. ‘Adverbs.’ Retrieved October 25, 2019 (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/adverb/).
Education First. ‘Adverbs of Degree.’ Retrieved October 25, 2019 (https://www.ef.com/ca/english-resources/english-grammar/adverbs-degree/).