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.