Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Adverbs Are Evil

Before we get started...don't forget about my first-ever contest! Win a signed copy of Dennis Lehane's The Given Day or Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife!

Now I want to talk about something that we all deal with. Every. Single. Day. Adverbs.

What is an adverb? An adverb is word that modifies another word, and answers questions such as who, how, or why something happened. And they should be avoided at all costs. 

What's so wrong with adverbs? To hammer the point home, I thought I'd borrow this crafty little fellow from Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe to tell you all about it....

Blog followers, meet Ninjadillo!!!! A high-kicking armadillo who karate-chops adverbs to the curb! Heeyyaahhh!

Ninjadillo was introduced to me by Shannon. Those claws are terrifying, and a constant reminder of the way that adverbs will rip your precious manuscript to shreds if you don't remove them as soon as possible.

Now, I know most of you have heard this line before: get rid of adverbs, it will make your MS better. But do you really understand why adverbs are evil? I'll admit I didn't fully understand it until last week.

The truth is, adverbs make your writing sound weak, lazy, and boring. They dilute the power of the verb they're modifying. Instead of actually taking the time to describe what the characters are thinking, feeling, or doing, adverbs allow writers to insert one word and create a blanket impression of the idea they're trying to get across. When you use adverbs, you're taking away a lot of the meaning that your words could have - if you let them.

Take these two sentences, both of which say essentially the same thing, but only one of which contains any adverbs. 
The drunk entered the room unsteadily and walked noisily into a lamp.

The drunk staggered into the room, knocking over a lamp which crashed to the floor.
In both sentences, we know the man is drunk, having trouble walking, and is making a lot of noise. But the second sentence somehow paints a more vivid picture - the words themselves (stagger and crash) have a slight onomatopoeia effect, and give a precise image of how the man is walking. 

Sometimes, removing the adverb can be as simple as reorganizing the sentence structure, turning:
Suddenly, there was a blinding light overhead.
There was a sudden blinding light overhead.
But getting rid of adverbs isn't always the right thing to do. The thing you want to consider is this: is the adverb telling the reader something they don't already know or couldn't have figured out on their own from context clues? Or can you write a better sentence/paragraph to make those context clues more clear? Another thing to think about is when the adverb is describing something that is out of the ordinary. For example, you wouldm't want to write:
The boy stroked his dog's fur lovingly.
Because, well, how else would you expect a boy to stroke his dog's fur? But the minute the boy pets his dog in a way that shows aggression, well...then it becomes interesting...
The boy rubbed his hands roughly across the dog's back, forcing a whine out of the animal.
 It's possible that this sentence could be improved upon many times over, and eventually that adverb - roughly - could be eliminated altogether for some verb that simply describes rough rubbing (scour, maybe, but that doesn't seem right). But since it is unexpected, it is allowable, and Ninjadillo might retract his claws and allow your adverb to live another day.

The best thing I've heard about adverbs so far was from Dennis Lehane (I think I quoted this last week, but it's worth repeating): "Learn to sprinkle adjectives like salt and adverbs like cyanide." And of course, never forget the most important rule of all - every rule that has ever been written about writing has been broken, beautifully, by some writer, somewher.


  1. Awesome post Heather--really! (And not just because I'm mentioned in it--or because I'm terrified of Ninjadillo) It is amazing how you can *think* a sentence with an adverb in it works, until someone shows you how much better it could be without one and it's like Ohhhhhhhhh! *facepalm*

    But there are times when adverbs are okay. Just very, very few. :)

    (Oh and now that I FINALLY finished my ending re-write I can't wait to go back and read all your posts from these last couple weeks. Sounds like there's a treasure trove of good advice there. Sorry I've been MIA, and here's hoping I am getting a little of my life back so I can blog hop more!)

  2. Such great advice. I love the quote at the end about adjectives and adverbs. Thanks!

  3. Ahhhhhhh! *Beats head against wall repeatedly*

    Adverbs are my greatest nemesis. I am a recovering adverbaholic. This post hits me where it hurts, Heather!

    Great advice. Great post. Great quote. :-)

  4. Fantastic quote from Dennis Lehane and a reminder that should sit in our back pockets pinching us all the time.

  5. You are right, of course, but what about the ever present,,"lolly, lolly, lolly, get... well now, see there, of no use now. lolol

  6. Nice post. I love playing around with words and sentence structures. Yes, I'm weird like that. lol. : )

  7. Oooh this is a good post. I also need to hide from the wrath of Ninjadillo, hehe!

  8. It's funny because I have noticed as I am listening to the HP books on audio...JK Rowling uses adverbs a TON. Like, enough that they jump out at me constantly while I'm listening.

    So I was thinking of that while I was reading, and then I got to that last quote. So, so true.

  9. "The ninjadillo attacked my weak-a** writing roughly."

    Oh, wait...

    "The ninjadillo mangled my weak-a** writing."

    {lightbulb goes on}

    Ah, I see. That's so much better now! :D

    Seriously, groovy post. You should know I am setting up ninjadillo traps all around my desk as we speak.

  10. I've always secretly loved adverbs...they're so often maligned. And so often poorly used. Abused little part of speech, aren't they? You make wonderful points, but I think your best one is at the end--how to use them correctly!

    And Ninjadillo is my new favorite animal.

  11. You brought in Ninjadillo! :D That makes me happy. :)


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