In Defense of the Adverb

Admittedly this piece may come off as glibly written, and I suppose I’m intentionally doing so. But I’m really starting to look closely at the idea that adverbs are inherently bad, or automatically make writing worse. Certainly there is a reason for the existence of the adverb, and obviously they can be overused. (I mean really, really, really overused.) But should the sins of some writers force all writers to systematically, irreverently, totally do away with the adverb?

Okay, I’ve made my point, but it’s something that has been on my mind a lot lately. (There it is again.)

I’m a big supporter of the adverb. No, I don’t think you should put “really” four times in a sentence. In fact there are the “Egregious Adverbs”, as I call them, which would be “really”, “very”, “mostly” and so on, which actually do, in almost every case, weaken language.

But take into consideration other usages of adverbs, and you’ll begin to see my point.

Imagine with me, if you will, a tall woman with black hair in a white dress. Doesn’t matter what she looks like, just imagine her however you wish. She’s standing on a road and there’s a mailbox about ten feet in front of her. It’s autumn. Just because I like autumn. Got it?

Okay. Now. Consider this sentence.

“She walked towards the mailbox, anticipating its contents.”

What do you see?

Try this.

“She walked furiously towards the mailbox, bitterly anticipating its contents.”

Well that’s different, isn’t it? Let’s play again.

“She walked gracefully towards the mailbox, happily anticipating its contents.”

Very different picture, right? Come on, one more time.

“She walked hesitantly towards the mailbox, nervously anticipating its contents.”

It’s the same picture, but it’s not. We start at the same place every single time. Same woman. Same setting. Same mailbox. What is it that makes the scene so vivid? The adverbs.

Adverbs, when used correctly, are to literature as solvent is to a dirty painting. (Disclaimer: I know nothing about art restoration, so it may not actually be solvent, I was just throwing in a word for “cleaner”. 🙂 ) There’s a beautiful picture underneath, a vivid scene, but without the adverbs all you see is a woman walking towards a mailbox.

Chances are it makes a big difference to the story whether or not she’s walking furiously, walking gracefully, or walking hesitantly. The adverbs can easily transform this scene from a woman just checking the mail to a woman about to get a really irritating piece of mail, a woman getting a love letter, or a woman getting something rather disconcerting…perhaps a diagnosis. Perhaps a tarantula. We don’t know.

But we do know, thanks to the adverbs, that she’s hesitant and nervous.

Now, someone will argue (probably Steven King), that you could have said “She stormed” instead of “She walked furiously”. That’s a fair point. In some cases adverbs can be replaced with a more efficient and powerful word, and in that case, go for it! Adjectives, ho! Verbs, ho!

But in a vast majority of cases, I’ve found that adverbs are a clarifying agent. They sharpen the focus of the mental picture the author is trying to paint, activate the reader’s senses, and award characters with attributions they may not have otherwise had.

In my recent short story, Beyond the Veil, (which is free until Dec. 29 *cough*), you’ll notice that Elizabeth replied coolly, leaned nonchalantly, and crossed her arms. Sure, she could have replied, leaned, and crossed her arms. But she wouldn’t have come across as the villainous, contemptuous, slightly arrogant woman she is without those adverbs. You get a much clearer picture of how she did things thanks to adverbs, and once you know how she’s doing things, you know more of who she is and can see the scene more clearly. (Or, if you’re developing an eye twitch over my use of adverbs, in greater detail.)

That is my defense of adverbs. I happily, joyfully, merrily wish you the best of holidays, during which I hope you ravenously devour the carefully cooked meal you excitedly look forward to all year long. 😀

Until next time, happy writing!

(Feel free to sound off in the comments: adverbs, or no adverbs?)

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Adverbs, used sparingly, can set mood quickly. However, longer exposition can add tension.

    She crept toward the mailbox, darting glances up and down the lane. The flag was up, but she hadn’t left the house for three days. Not since his last message had appeared in the box, its warning still tingling along her spine. The flag stood, red as blood against the snow-covered road, and she clutched her wrap around her, fending off a shiver. With one finger, she gently tugged on the mailbox door, cracking the ice seal. She’d expected another note; a further warning. The photo she found instead brought her to her knees. A voiceless cry caught in her throat. The cold was nothing compared to the chilling image displayed before her. She hadn’t taken him seriously, and now she’d regret it for life.

    They both have their place, and you are correct… as soon as someone says “never”, there will always be an “except…” I still try to avoid them… I really, really, really do 😉

    1. courtneyherz says:

      Haha. It’s true. I still try to use them sparingly…er, with discretion…but they are like seasoning. Take them away and what’s left can be rather bland. I do try to take “Uncle Stevie’s” advice and kill my darlings when I edit. Regrettably, sadly, those darlings are typically adverbs. However, just because salt can be overused doesn’t mean it should be abandoned altogether. I’m sure I will play devil’s advocate at some point and write a cheat sheet of all the adverbs and how they can be replaced with more effective verbiage. Because that’s just me. Haha. But they aren’t to be loathed. I loved your comment. 🙂

      1. Completely true! And if you think of them like salt, and apply them as one would salt, then they don’t overpower and they do the job they are intended to do! One thing that is nice with adverbs is they can be triggers for strong editing. If you put in, ‘She crept gingerly across the floor’…. then you come back during the edit and you change it out with “She stepped across the floor, up on tiptoes, inching toward the kitchen as if the room held a slumbering bear….” Your edit ends up stronger, but for the first draft, the adverbs can set you up for adding in the punch you want to deliver later. And then sometimes, you come across “She crept gingerly across the floor” and you go… well, the next two paragraphs wax poetic about her sleeping captor, so the adverb is “just enough”…. LOL

      2. courtneyherz says:

        Absolutely!!! They’re like little flags that say “Exposition Goes Here” haha. Love it. Since I write longhand I put parentheses around weak words I want to find better replacements for later and I find adverbs act in the same manner for description and exposition later on. Good point!

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