The Problem with Adverbs

Nat Russo Adverbs, Basics, How-To, Qualifiers, Writing 20 Comments

If you’ve been studying the craft of writing for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly come across countless writers who think adverbs are evil. As you can see from the previous sentence, I don’t think they’re evil. But I do think you need to exercise caution when using them in your fiction.

We should start by defining what they are. Then I’ll talk about the problem with adverbs in general and offer a demonstration of why they can be problematic.

Adverbs

Lolly Lolly Lolly, get your adverbs here!

What’s an Adverb?

If you’re anything like me (i.e. OOOOOOOOLLLLLD), and you’re an American, then your first exposure to adverbs was probably from these guys below.

Schoolhouse Rock teaches us that adverbs are modifier words. Let’s see what the “Lollies” have to say about them:

An adverb is a word…
That modifies a verb…
It modifies an adjective,
Or else another adverb.
And so you see that it’s positively, very, very, necessary.

The first four lines tell you exactly what you need to know in terms of a definition. If you run, you’re not using an adverb. If, on the other hand, you run quickly, you are. If your house is painted red, you’re not using an adverb. But if your house is painted very red, you are. And if you really want to do some grammatical gymnastics, maybe your house is very sloppily painted. Or even horribly sloppily painted.

But look at the last line of the quote. As Pooh would say, oh bother!

There was a writer (the name slips my mind) who once said “In order to become a successful writer, I had to forget everything they taught me in English class.” Let that last quoted line from Schoolhouse Rock be one of the things you forget.

But What’s the Big Deal?

When you read my advice to forget that last quoted line, you may have asked yourself why? And that’s ok. New writers have a tendency to lean on adverbs out of a misguided notion that they’re being more descriptive. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Rather than specify, adverbs create ambiguity. I’d like to offer an example or two from a work I recently edited for an up-and-coming writer.

He wrote the following:

They opened the portal carefully.

Seems innocent enough, right? The problem is that carefully encapsulates a lot of information that you’re no longer showing the reader. Instead, you’re telling them. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a time and place for telling; summaries are prime candidates, or any long period of time you want to gloss over in favor of getting to the interesting bits. But the sentence above was in the middle of a suspense sequence, and rather than build tension, the writer just hit me with “they opened the portal carefully.” As a reader, it was a bit of a letdown.

Not only was the word carefully telling instead of showing, it wasn’t specific enough to draw me in and keep me in the fictive dream state.

So how do we fix it? I can tell you what I did with the above situation: I asked a lot of questions. I asked the writer to give me images of what he was trying to convey. What was the tone? The mood? The setting? Did any one particular character (encapsulated in that ambiguous “they”) have more at stake than the others? When I had my answers, I scribbled the following:

They approached the doorway with slow, deliberate steps, and Bob hoped he wasn’t leading them into a trap. When he pulled the handle, he paused, gesturing for the others to remain silent. He didn’t want the telltale sign of a tripwire or a lit fuse to slip by unnoticed. All it would take to give up their position, and forfeit their lives, would be a moment’s loss of concentration.

When nothing happened, he opened the door the rest of the way.

First-draft quality, but this was meant to spark his imagination with what might be possible in his scene, not provide him with publishable copy. I think you can see the difference, though. In the first version, he told the reader what the group did. In the second version, I showed the reader. This takes more work, make no mistake about it. But the result is worth it, because it’s pure story.

“But Nat!” you say. “You just murdered his word count, dude! He’s already over his target and you just quindrupified his problem!”

The first thing I’d tell you is “quindrupified isn’t a word. Get out of my face.”

The second thing I’d tell you is yes. Yes this can increase word count if there isn’t an immediate, stronger verb selection that can stand on its own. But providing the details that set the tone and build tension in your reader is not the place to sacrifice words.

Read that again if you have to. I’ll wait.

If you want to slash word count, I’m with you! I’ve got a HUGE collection of swords and daggers I can use to totally gut that manuscript. But my targets are better; “x of the y” constructs. Overused phrases. Unnecessary dialog attribution. Over explaining. The word “that”. Filter words. Qualifiers. Intensifiers. The list goes on. Trust me when I tell you if your goal is to reduce words, you probably have a target-rich environment. We all do in our early drafts.

Don’t fear adverbs. And don’t assume you’ve done something “wrong” every time you find one in your work. Yes, it’s telling and not showing. But the guideline that says “show don’t tell” should be rephrased “know when to tell, and know when to show.” If you’re making an educated decision to tell, then tell. And do so proudly. But if you find an adverb or two in an area where you really should be descriptive, then rework it.

As always, the goal is to create a fictive dream state in the reader and keep them there with every word on the page. Evaluate every word choice by whether or not it accomplishes that task and you’ll be miles ahead of most other writers.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 20

  1. Believe it or not, some authors’ first drafts are too SPARSE, rather than having too many words. Something else I see sometimes is resorting to grammatical incorrectness in order to avoid “those -ly words.” Y’know, like writing “run fast” instead of “run quickly” in the mistaken belief that if it doesn’t end in -ly, it isn’t an adverb.

    (Arrrghhhh… No one mentioned a need to eliminate “that” as much as possible. *sigh* — or should that be *exhale*? 🙂 )

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      I do, though it’s a small part of a larger post. It’s in part 2 of my Revision Checklist, which you can find here:
      https://www.erindorpress.com/2013/01/revision-checklist-part-2-of-2

      In short, it’s things like “door of the car”, “hilt of the sword”, etc. In these examples, unless you’re going for a specific word rhythm, which is perfectly acceptable, you can shorten to “car door”, “sword’s hilt”, etc.

      I usually look for these when I’m going through my “reduce word count” phase, because they’re prime candidates for consolidation.

    2. Ah, cool. The x and the y got me thinking numbers so I could only think of something like “nine of the eleven players failed to score.”

  2. My standing impression of adverbs is that they often pop up when the writer’s thinking in two stages: “Run… no, take it up to Run Quickly.” Which is never as strong as strengthening the verb (to, say, Dash) or repicturing the who sentence or paragraph structure to make the impression clearer. It’s sticking with the obvious word you already wrote, plus an obvious quick “improvement,” and at its worst it shows that you made two lazy choices instead of one.

    (Funny how people don’t pick on adjectives the same way. I think a lot of the same applies, but adjectives can be closer to necessary than adverbs: the nouns they modify just have too many possibilities to cover without adjectives, at the right times. Running can be dashing, loping, or scampering, but there aren’t many ways to make a field green without “green.”)

    In the end it’s about pace. Trivial things shouldn’t be modified at all; minor ones might need an adverb to Tell it quickly (yes, I went there) and move on; major ones need a proper Showing description; the really good stuff probably needs a bit of both.

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      An excellent point about adjectives. Many writers don’t realize that bolting an adjective onto every noun has a similar weakening effect.

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  5. I know you mention that it’s first draft quality, but honestly, I feel like the second version has a lot of tell in it. “All it would take to give up their position, and forfeit their lives, would be a moment’s loss of concentration.” In my opinion, this is something you want to make your readers feel, rather than have to tell them. Plus, ‘slow, deliberate’ is almost a tautology. The fact that you’re mentioning that they are ‘approaching the door’ at all implies that it’s done slowly; otherwise you could just say ‘they opened the door’. My – first draft quality lol – suggestion would be:

    They approached the door. Bob’s hand trembled as he took the handle; the hinges creaked, and he halted. Nothing. He breathed in, momentarily resting his head on the doorframe. No traps. They were safe.

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      The section beginning with “He didn’t want” and ending with “concentration” was Bob’s internalization. I tend to write in a tight 3rd person PoV and chose Bob as the PoV character for this. But, in general, I agree!

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  7. Thank you for the reminder. I just learned to cut exposition out my screenplays. Your example about opening the “door carefully” was exactly a line in my script. Needless to say, it is gone.

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