Are Adverbs Really So Bad??

(quote by Henry James)

I hope you can recognize and appreciate the irony of the above quote; it made me laugh. 😛 Adverbs get a really bad rap among writers…but why? ***
Well, like all writing ‘rules’, they all started off with good intentions. Try to get through the sentence below, if you can.


He quickly walked up to the curb, then spoke quietly to the man standing there, who was staring at him angrily.


Does this sentence make you groan? Then you might understand why the writing ‘rule’ that says, ‘don’t use adverbs’ may be a good thing. If I replace the adverbs in the above sentence with other words, the sentence becomes much stronger. Watch:
He quickly walked darted up to the curb, then spoke quietly whispered to the man standing there, who was staring at him angrily glaring at him.

Okay, so we all know this isn’t the most beautiful sentence ever, but even just replacing those adverbs really helped strengthen it, right? There’s no need to say “spoke quietly” when a better word choice is whispered, or stared angrily‘ for glared.

But, does this really mean we should cut out all adverbs, all of the time? Let’s take a look at another sentence:

He glanced up from his paper and saw a woman across the street, who was waving to him eagerly.

Now, if we take out that adverb, ‘eagerly‘…does it really improve the sentence? On the contrary, it detracts from the picture. To say she ‘waved’ doesn’t give us a lot of information about what’s happening. It could be a very bored wave or an angry get-over-here wave or an excited wave, like above. By adding in the ‘eagerly‘, we can see more than just some woman waving. We see an excited woman waving, and the imagination fills in the rest. Maybe our hero is then confused because he’s never seen this woman before in his life, and that, dear reader, could be the beginning of a story. 🙂

The problem is–as with most writing ‘rules’–that people seem to take all this advice as law. Doing so is like having a toolbox, but saying you will never use a hammer again because it didn’t work right on one project, so it’s a bad tool. This isn’t true! A writer’s toolbox should be filled with even the most ‘mundane’ or ‘cliche’ tools, because even those are important sometimes. Adverbs are not a waste of space; they just need to be used wisely.

A good rule of thumb (and again, not law) is to examine all your adverbs (and every other word, for that matter!) for usefulness. As I mentioned in a previous post, verbs are one of the strongest words you can use, so if you can replace ‘he walked slowly‘ with ‘he ambled’ or ‘he tiptoed’, most likely that will be the better choice. Again, you may find times that this doesn’t work for whatever reason–that’s fine! Adverbs are not just a waste of space (why do you think we have them???) and should be used like any other tool in the writer’s toolbox: with care and precision.

And sometimes, your sentences just need to flow, and if the word choice doesn’t work for that, well, change it! You can’t have every sentence say “He ambled. He glared. He strode.” or else that would get very boring quickly, too. The secret to great writing is variation and moderation, as you will learn in the upcoming weeks.

***To illustrate a point, I underlined all the adverbs in this post (that I caught. I might have missed some, haha.) Quite a few, huh? And I wasn’t even trying! But as you can see, if I removed all my adverbs…this post would be pretty boring. Adverbs have their place in the world, like anything else–we just need to learn to use them properly

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