Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Case Against Adverbs

As if trying to provide a good anecdote to open this very article, one of the students in my Fiction Writing Workshop got caught up in the adverb conundrum recently. She told a classmate to take a red pen and cross out the multitude of adverbs he had strewn throughout his story. The rest of the class nodded their heads in agreement; after all, we didn't need to be told that his protagonist "screamed angrily" or that another character "replied snobbishly." But just before I could move us on to the next item on the agenda, the author asked the young woman who'd spoken up, "But why? Why can't I use adverbs?"

She froze. "I don't know," she said. "But…they're not…um, right."

Everyone in the room looked to me, the professor of creative writing, to explain further. After all, what exactly is the problem with adverbs? They'd all been told, by me and (most likely) every writing teacher they'd ever had, that they shouldn't use adverbs, especially of the "-ly" variety, to describe how their characters spoke, thought and acted. I'd been taught to do the same by all of my writing professors as I work on my MFA in Creative Writing. Adverbs are bad, we knew. But, when asked why they were bad...well, my mind drew a blank.

Hey, I've only taught that class once before. I told them I'd have to think about it and try to explain better the next time we were together. Here's what I came up with, which I hope might be helpful to you as writers or teachers of writing.

Adverbs Tell Readers

If you've ever taken a decent creative writing class or workshop, you've surely been told that your writing should "show, not tell." This advice means that writers should portray their characters in situations and conversations that reveals their inner emotions (or even thoughts), rather than telling the readers what is happening. Showing makes for more engaging (and, in my opinion, more authentic) writing. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but it's a good one to keep in mind, especially for young writers.

In our next class, I pointed out that using an adverb as a means of revealing a character's thoughts or actions was almost always a tip-off that the writer is telling instead of showing. For example, if I write:

Nancy yelled angrily whenever someone questioned her.

...I'm getting my point across by telling the reader how the character reacts. Sure, this might be just fine at times, but it's often better to write something like this:  

Nancy's boss approached holding the report she'd turned in the day before. She felt her heart start to race – what was the problem now? She'd met her deadline. The clients would be happy.

"Hey, Nancy," Jim said. "I just wanted to ask you if you're sure this is ready to go out with the courier. Did you double-check it? Triple-check it?

Nancy felt her face heat up, and the words were spilling out before she could stop herself. "What do you think, Jim?" she said, as she took a step towards him. "Did I remember the most basic component of submitting a report? Did I?"

OK, so as I told my students, it's not Proust. But, as I pointed out to them, do you see how much more information we readers learn from the second example? We know what words Nancy yelled, and what kind of yelling she did (sarcastic and mean!), not to mention a bit more about her work environment. We even get a sense that Nancy yells when she's embarrassed (because she "felt her face heat up"). That's so much more involving for the reader than "yelled angrily," which seems to be vague and un-illuminating now that we can see an example that shows instead of tells.

Readers can't be shown everything that happens to a character, or novels would be 800 pages and cover 15 minutes in the protagonist's life. Sometimes adverbs help to move the story along through summary or time compression. But for young writers, learning to do without them is a good first practice.

Adverbs Tell Writers, Too

It's easy to miss the other folks besides readers who are helped by eliminating adverbs – the writers themselves. I told my students that learning to write without them can be compared to walking instead of driving. When we drive – or use adverbs – sure, we get to our destination much more rapidly, and at times that's exactly what we want. But think about the last time you drove to an unfamiliar destination: do you remember much about what you saw? Probably not, because you were focused on getting there. Writing with adverbs is the same way – we get to the destination (in this case, that readers know that Nancy yelled and was angry) much more quickly, but we lost a lot of the scenery along the way.

However, if we get out of the car and walk, the trip takes a lot longer, but we remember more about it. Instead of racing ahead, we stop and look at Nancy, and her desk, and her boss, and her apparent anger management issues. It's a slower trip, and surely takes longer to write, but a more rewarding one. Let's face it – the scenery is often the most interesting part!

Adverbs Keep Out Trust

Another reason to avoid adverbs, as I told my students, is because they might signal to your readers that you, the writer, do not trust them. Let's say a writer fully describes the action of a scene in which one character puts another down, but closes out the section with something like:

"Well, I guess if you had grown up with it, you would understand polo," Minx said snobbishly.

The "snobbishly" comes off as a "Get it? GET IT?" elbow nudge: anyone who's read the scene carefully understands that Minx is a snob and is putting down the other character. To point it out again is akin to the writer saying to the readers "I don't trust you to understand what just happened, so I'll tell you again. Get it?" If writers want their readers to trust them, they'll have to trust their readers first.

Adverbs Indicate a Lack of Revision

It's not very difficult at all to get my students to write. It's like pulling teeth to get them to revise. (I'm sure many teachers agree!). One of the most common complaints I hear about revising from students is that they feel that they don't know where to start. I often suggest searching for "*ly" (or however their computer can be programmed to look for adverbs in a document), and then questioning the need for each of them.

Few writers draft without using adverbs. My own writing is often littered with "-ly"s. Good writers go back and consider each adverb to make sure it's needed. They'd go back to Minx up there and realize that they don't need "snobbishly," so they'd cut it. I wouldn't go so far as to say that not taking the time to revise is lazy, but it's certainly not very professional. When my students feel frustrated about moving from being an amateur writer to being a professional writer, I try to gently point out that the refusal to revise (and proof-read) might be what's keeping them trapped. Real writers revise. Adverbs are a good target for starting.

Adverbs are a Dumping Ground

A dumping ground for what? Let me give you a hint, she replied uxoriously. Did you get it yet, he responded zealously.

See the problem? Adverbs can be a way of dropping in that super-fancy word that the writer really wanted to use. Maybe it's because the word is absolutely perfect and must be used, in which case, great! But it's more likely that the super-fancy word is just an opportunity for the writer to show off that he knows it. Some writers – and Henry James comes to mind here – use adverbs like this with frequency, and the rest of the prose matches them for breadth of vocabulary and complex phrasing. I have yet to encounter a young writer these days whose work reminds me a lot of Henry James, though, so I try to discourage the use of fancy-schmancy adverbs. My students want to show that they're smart, which, when they're competing for grades, makes sense. But it's even smarter to know how to value voice over a super-fancy word.

A caveat: if the writer is trying to create a narrative voice that would use such words, full speed ahead, although it's probably worth a look to make sure the rest of the developing story is as challenging in vocabulary and phrasing. So, if my student is writing in the voice, of, say, a professor, one who might use the word "uxoriously" without pause, I tell her to go for it!

Adverbs Get Lost

Literally. Truly. Actually. They do. We use them so often that we forget that they're there. Please understand, I'm not trying to get involved in the ongoing debate over the use of "literally." Instead, I'm trying to help my students see that they've used that word – and the dozen other common adverbs that pop up in their writing, like the three above. Adverbs that modify adjectives (such as "very nice to meet you" and "thanks so much") also often are used by rote.

Again, the question is about the narrative voice. If I'm writing in the voice of a teenager in 2012, it might work to have her use any of the adverbs I've noted above. For characters from 1889, say, that's a much bigger problem. Young writers let these slip out without thought, as part of the drafting process. Revising – it always comes back to revising – is the key to fixing these adverbial mistakes.

After we discussed all of the above, my students had a better understanding about why adverbs shouldn't usually be a building block of their writing, especially after the drafting is complete. And I was more clear too – it's good to know why I was spouting an aphorism about writing instead of just giving lip service to a concept I hadn't quite thought through. I'm interested to hear what you writers and writing teachers tell yourselves and your students about adverbs, so please comment!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 18th 2014, 12:54 PM
Comment by: Toni
"also often are used by rote." - does not flow with the writing in the piece. "often are also used by rote" - seems to flow better.

Love the "scenery" image.
Friday July 18th 2014, 8:12 PM
Comment by: насне Д. (Ireland)
Are you being serious? (a.k.a "Seriously?") No adverb?

The example is fit for purpose, but shouldn't you consider it's an exception?
I agree a toilet-paper-like so-called "book" such as "Fifty Shades of Whoever" overuses "dryly" everywhere and in any possible manner.

According to you, it'd be just by lack of imagination, or distrust of the reader's abilities -- both are possibly true, but Art was obviously not the aim for that... thing.

However, not all writers ("authors" seems to be something else nowadays, way below) are that much "decerebrated" (literally, like the frog in Biology Class...) and some, even, can use adverbs to properly qualify verbs.

For instance, your "Minx said snobbishly" is technically wrong, as it doesn't qualify "said" but the implicit intention than comes with it, while "loudly" would work in the adverb way. For example:
"I'm gonna kill you" she whispered softly in my ear while forcefully crushing my [to be continued]

However, when the adverb qualifies an action, things are not quite the same. It is necessary because the verb lacks some meaning by itself, it's too vague (nay, "semantically fuzzy"). The adverb is there to make things clear, precise, descriptive, explanatory, but you only show a case where it's needlessly excessive ("needlessly" sounds much funnier than "without any need for it to be so").
Also, an enumeration of adverbs provides a convenient (somewhat elegant) way of describing an action and its evolution without repeating the verb itself, which would be definitely ugly (try with "walk").

Without its adverb(s), your verb is merely as naked as a noun without its adjective(s) -- you should try removing the adjectives too, they're uxoriously zealous, uselessly snobbish and "fancy-schmancy", at least for they're the roots for the "-ly" adverbs.

Hence (and therefore), adjectives are Evil. Literally (I read the debate) twisting the meaning of these perfectly well defined genuine nouns can only be the dark works of the Evil One!

Whatever... Adverbs are to the verbs what adjectives are to the nouns, same logical relationship (but "logical" is Evil too, isn't it), a bit adulterous when an adjective comes to qualify a verb or when an adverb qualifies a noun or even an adjective (or a verb with the *function* of an adjective, just to make everything really messed up), such as in "This adverb is a seriously rainbowed LGBT". Enjoy.

All these adverbs, adjectives, verbs are instruments given (offered) in the language (any language) to support the Thought (although French is a bit on the "doublethink" side). I'm definitely NOT convinced they should be rated "ungood" and censored because they're not too fancy (anymore), too complex or too often misused.

At some point, far away in my youth, I used to count on teachers to show me how to use these tools, to master them, not to dispose them as an admission of their very own helplessness:
Le piédestal roule de coté et la corde se tend sur la gorge de mes illusions ainsi pendues (pardon my French)

If I may use a last adverb... Use wisely!
Saturday July 19th 2014, 12:27 AM
Comment by: Geoff M. (HAWKER Australia)
I have never before heard such a ridiculous rule that adverbs in creative writing are bad. It may have been a long time ago, but no such rule was ever mentioned to my generation when we were at school. I think that the idea that you are trying to get at is not to overdo the use of adverbs because by doing so the text can be too floral and difficult or frustrating to read. But as the previous comment by the person from Ireland writes, this applies equally to adjectives.

I have not bothered to count them, but I noticed in your article quite a number of adverbs (e.g., rapidly, quickly, ahead) that were quite essential to the meaning you were intending to impart. Surely such conciseness can be just as essential in creative writing.
Saturday July 19th 2014, 1:37 AM
Comment by: Garland S.
Quote from Mark Twain: “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Saturday July 19th 2014, 11:49 AM
Comment by: The Dormouse Awakes (Austin, TX)
Adverb assassination? Absurd! If I cared to invest the time, I could probably provide equivalent justifications for eliminating adjectives, verbs, nouns and other parts of speech. In spite of what you may have learned in your "decent creative writing classes", adverbs can greatly enrich a narrative in the hands of a skilled writer. Well chosen adverbs can enhance our connection with the setting, give greater awareness of characters' actions and provide insight into their motivations.
Saturday July 19th 2014, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Douglas L. (Walhalla, SC)
It seems to me that all words should be in the writer's toolbox. They all serve a purpose when used properly. The most overused and unnecessary word I've seen is the word THAT. Read all the above and see how many times it can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Saturday July 19th 2014, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I concur with the ethos of your article Shannon. A minimal use of adverbs (or adjectives)heightens creativity and thus,a narrative, pleasing to read.

This was advocated by George Orwell whose minimalist style created vivid, vibrant imagery
Sunday July 20th 2014, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Patricia O. (Watauga Lake, TN)
While this article may be focused more on what not to do, I found that it makes much clearer how to show, not tell. I no longer have to worry about using the modifiers in the first draft. In fact, I can use them as placeholders as a reminder of where I need to investigate the value of showing.

I do not believe I've gotten anything as clearly stated as show, don't tell through revision to make only the essential adverbs stick. Thank you! I appreciate that clarification.
Sunday July 20th 2014, 4:01 PM
Comment by: robert G. (garfield heights, OH)
Well what about a screenplay where you want the actors to portray a specific emotion.
Sunday July 20th 2014, 6:10 PM
Comment by: Kathleen P.
Banish the adverb? No thanks.

But in this case, as in choosing a healthy diet, the old saw holds true: "Moderation in all things." "No butter"(carbs, coffee, red meat, shellfish, sweets...whatever...) seems needless deprivation.

Besides, heeding Dylan Thomas' advice, I do not want to "go gently into that goodnight." I want to go well-fed by love, food, music, curiosity and all available linguistic pleasures.
Sunday July 20th 2014, 9:11 PM
Comment by: Josephine L. (CA)
Adverbs gives you more detail to the sentence. When is adverbs a bad thing? When did people say you should not use adverbs? Shouldn't it be the writer's choice to use adverbs?
Tuesday July 22nd 2014, 8:01 PM
Comment by: janine A.
Adverbs have their place in creative writing. But when they are redundant, or used too often in lieu of description, or used instead of a well chosen action verb, they need to go.

For instance, ambling slowly. The adverb is redundant because to amble means to walk slowly.

To have a character say something nervously-how does that paint a picture for us? If we were visualizing the character saying something nervously, what would we see him doing? Drumming fingers? Pacing, gesticulating? Some other nervous tic? The description of action is much more interesting than using an adverb as a shortcut.

Using adverbs can relieve the writer of the challenge to find just the right action verb, but the writing won't be as lively. If the character is saying something snobbishly and the writer is trying to get across the idea that the character is contemptuous, the character could sneer instead. That verb conjures two senses: the visual aspects - the look on the character's face - and the sound/tone of voice. Action verbs are more likely to keep your audience awake.
Wednesday July 23rd 2014, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
A common redundancy: very unique.
Thursday July 24th 2014, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Well, Shannon, you have played the devil's advocate here, a strategy which the Roman Catholic church has always used as a way of testing the validity of canonizing or beatifying a candidate. I'd say, based on the response it generated that it worked very well indeed!
Thursday July 24th 2014, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Helen C. B.
Adverbs are essential components of the language. The analogy, however, that adverbs are to verbs as adjectives are to nouns does not hold up. If a man is tall, or handsome, or well-dressed, there are few synonyms for "male" that will convey one or more of those qualities. Those that do exist tend to come over-burdened with connotations (e.g., stud).

Not so with verbs. An object meeting the surface of a table, for example, may land on, slam into, be slammed, thud onto, be placed, slide onto, be arranged, be tossed, bounce onto, be thrown onto, glance off, and so on. Text may be read, reviewed, or scanned, or even announced or orated. You can speak softly, but you can also whisper, murmur, or hiss. Note that none of the words used in these examples are unusual or obscure.

English abounds with verbs that convey shades of meaning and emotion. A plethora of adverbs usually signals a writer who is either ignorant of the language, or too lazy to work out which verb suits the intended meaning. (Masterful exceptions exist, of course.) Unnecessary adverbs clutter writing and blunt it's force.

For the record: I, too, taught writing for many years. I taught engineers, for whom precision can, in fact, be a matter of life, death, or injury, in language as in numbers.
Friday August 8th 2014, 8:36 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Just re-read this sentence last night.

"All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other's soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do."

Makes quite the case for adverbs, does it not?

Extra points to whomever recognizes this!
Tuesday September 30th 2014, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Mary S.
I feel that many of the comments seem to be missing the point of revision as being a key element when using adverbs. Reed doesn't say never use adverbs, but rather to use them appropriately.
Wednesday June 28th 2017, 1:05 AM
Comment by: Ms. Klitz (AR)
This is an amazing conversation to have in class. Actually, as often as we have spoken about adjectives and their purpose in great sentences, we have spent little time discussing the effects of adverbs. I am enlightened and I will certainly incorporate this into my units of study.

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