The Toxicity of Adverbs

Hello everyone.

Today I’d like to talk a bit about adverbs. I am by no means a grammarian, but there is one thing I am certain of: that our novelling adventures can do without a large portion of the adverbs used in our prose. Perhaps some people aren’t as picky as me, but prose is often many times better with the elimination of needless adverbs; yet there are still many people using them excessively in their writing, and depending on your preferred genre, that can be a problem.

Adverbs are words that modify other adverbs, adjectives, and verbs. When used out of necessity the adverbs can give your words more strength, but if they are a common occurrence in your writing then they have the overall effect of de-intensifying what you mean to intensify.

Take this as an example:

She hastily ran across the ballroom, weaving around people with careless ease; she was sure she was to be caught.

She ran across the ballroom, weaving around people with careless ease; she was sure she was to be caught.

Just removing that one word made the sentence less jarring and the imagery less disastrous, but it can still be improved upon with some rewording.

She wove around people gathered in the ballroom, attempting to disappear amongst the crowd; she was sure she was to be caught.

Now, I’m not sure about you, but this third sentence looks like a huge improvement from the first two. In the first two I pictured a woman with a gown and high heels charging like a rhino through a party, but the third time I picture her being more sneaky about getting away.

I don’t generally think of adverbs in a grammar sense, I think of them in their relation to the sentence. Do they add anything? What is the adverb actually modifying, and does it benefit the sentence at all? If it’s doing nothing useful, it could potentially be making the prose more dull. The example above I didn’t think about before writing this post, I just came up with it. It actually took me a few minutes to find a replacement for the adverb, but that just brings me to my next point.

Adverbs are good for summarizing, but not good for explaining.

In this sense, adverbs are a great tool for bringing something to light, but not giving the reader the true sense of how it happened. I find that when writing a first draft of something, adverbs are a quick way to get what I’m thinking down without struggling over word choice. When it’s time to write the next draft or worry about prose, that’s when the adverbs get eliminated and expanded upon to actually show the true story. So while I think of adverbs as a big no-no, they are useful if you use them for a purpose and not to avoid explaining something (or plan on eliminating them later).

You know that saying ‘show, don’t tell’? I think adverbs play a large roll in that.

He nervously tapped his knee as he waited for the verdict.

His fingers thrummed against his knee as he waited for the verdict.

I’m not sure how to portray this theory with a simple example, as telling is done more blunt and showing is generally done over a longer period. My apologies if the above example is thus seen as poor. In any case, my point is more that telling someone what’s happening means you need less space to do so, and showing someone what’s happening means you expand what you would tell in order to show it. Adverbs feel like a simple way to tell, and by eliminating them you’re opening the doors to showing.

There is a lot more to adverbs than what I’ve explained here today, but this is just a quick opinion on the most common sorts of adverbs seen in novel-length writing. They have their place and when used correctly they do their job, but be aware of what the adverbs job is before deciding that it’s the best way to go. In general, you are safer not using them than using them.

~Erynn

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