The Three Real Problems with Adverbs

Posted on Posted in Uncategorized, Writing Craft

Ever hear that you should avoid adverbs like the plague? This post reveals what simple, solvable issues lurk behind that warning. The warning pertains frequently and apart from modified dialogue attribution, which just presents a special case of the broader issues discussed here.  Most websites focus on just the dialogue issue. So, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better explication of the basic problems at the root of all problematic adverbial modification. Other websites don’t even explain that there is more than one problem.




The Three Real Problems with Adverbs




Other sites and blogs do not do a good job of explaining how the use of adverbs can lead to poor writing. Most frequently, they focus on the modification of speech tags, e.g. ‘he said,’ ‘she said,’, ‘Satan said’, et cetera. Instead of using “she said angrily,” the other websites advise, write “she said”, but show that she is angry through description. Unfortunately folks, that is about as far as the good advice usually goes, and, when the advice goes further and from good to bad, the problems that I delineate below are conflated or run together, if they are even covered at all.

Unlike the other websites that discuss the issue of adverbial atrocities, I will not discuss the modification of speech tags. Rather, I will discuss the universal problems that this speech tag issue can be subsumed under, itself being part and parcel to broader mistakes that make prose more generally unsavory at the levels of sentence and paragraph.

Notice that I say “problems [of adverbs],” plural, and not “problem [etc.]”.  

I could have simply named this post “Some Adverbial Problems”, because–like my chosen title implies–(a) there is not just one problem with using adverbs in your fiction, but–unlike my chosen title implies–(b) there is not always a problem with using adverbs in your fiction.

[Why, clauses (a) & (b) make use of the adverbial phrase “in your fiction”, and that use is purely innocent. So, without further argument, we can tell that (b) is true.]

However, were I to have used a less leading title, this post wouldn’t show up in search-engine results as well as it does, and then you wouldn’t as easily come to understand what can make adverbs awful choices, at least beyond the issue as it crops up in dialogue attribution.

To be clear, this blog post is about explicating (a): articulating how adverbs can fail both the writer and the reader. The future will bring an explication of (b). Now, to the badass business of improving your work.


There are three major problems with using adverbs in fiction:


  1. Overlooking stronger verbs: Verbosity
  2. Including Superfluous or Redundant Information
  3. Distancing the Reader & Imprecision: Failing to communicate character traits, behaviors, and behavioral dispositions


Sometimes the best way to teach, like the “best” way to write fiction, is to show rather than tell.

Thus, let us consider the two following sentences:


“So, I moved sneakily into my naked sister’s room and closed her door quietly”

“So, I snuck into my naked sister’s room and closed her door.”


(1) Verbosity


Notice that the second sentence is shorter than the first. Verbosity is constituted by using more words or modifiers than you need to get your message across. For the most part, the fewer adverbs you use, the greater your concision will be.

Out of context, extra information in verbose sentences can seem more important than it really is. For example, “closing a door quietly” imparts more information than “closing a door”. However, in context, the extra information will often be superfluous or redundant, especially in fiction.


(2) Redundancy  


Suppose the following came before our dummy sentence(s).

My balls ache. I remembered what she told my friends. My sister, she said she likes to be naked after a shower. Oh, and her panties smell so sweet. She’d left them in the haul. Started showering. I stood there and smelled them. If only I could see her, I thought.  

If I could hide in her closet, then maybe I would. But I’d have to be quiet. I looked down the hall. Fuck, her door is closed. Bet she did that on purpose. I hope it isn’t locked.  The sound of water stopped.

I had to move.”

We can see how the adverbs can impart superfluous or redundant information.

You cannot sneak without moving, so “moved sneakily” is, in a sense, already redundant. But since the ending of “I had to move” implies that the “protagonist” moved or would move, the adverb makes the whole verb phrase (verb + modifier)—“moved sneakily”—partially redundant. Similarly, we already know the protagonist is going to be shut the door quietly if he’s going to shut it at all.


(3) Distancing the reader & imprecision.


Let’s use another comparison set:

“I looked at my sister avidly”

“I stared”


How does my “protagonist” do things avidly? The same way you imagine him to?

Perhaps, I envisage a boy who blinks a lot so his eyes don’t dry out. Perhaps, I want you to see a person whose attention is so rapt that he drools.  You probably just thought of a person with relatively stable attentive and visual acuity, i.e. a steady, unyielding gaze.

Like anger, keenness is expressed in different ways by different people. Some people’s angry voices are quiet and seething. Other’s angry voices are loud and raucous. Similarly, some people’s keenness is other’s mild interest, and keenness can look like an amped up, methed out, tweaker circus of an ADHD person’s repeated return of attention to an object of visual interest. (Oof, not only adverbs can make for verbosity!)

Here’s another example:

Jenny gives Jon fleeting glances when she looks at him angrily. But Jon might give Jenny a penetrating and unbroken eye in angry return.

The point is that adverbs tend not to cut between these sorts of distinctions/differences, and your reader may not be hearing, seeing, or understanding all that you would like to be taken in. Across the length of your work, what you communicate and your reader envisions can grow increasingly disparate.

So, adverbs are not always the most precise tools for communicating your heinous fictions.  

These three problems—the ones we’ve been discussing—crop up most frequently, and most noticeably, when we modify simple, humdrum verbs with simple, humdrum adverbs . This is fortunate because gross mistakes will be easy to catch, but if Stephen King is right, then using adverbs, even good ones, can become habitual, and that is when adverbial problems are most likely to be endemic and rampant. So, seller beware, for buyers of horror fiction are ever wary of wearying work.

Look back to in the future, we’ll explore how to turn your adverbs from terrible to terrifying. In short, we will see how adverbs can be just what the shrink ordered.  

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