“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
I normally don’t post about writing craft, being mostly unpublished myself. However, for critique groups, I often share craft articles I have bookmarked for various aspects of craft, and I haven’t found any about adverbs that says what I want to say. Besides, if I think too much about something, it’s good for my brain to write about it.
Articles I’ve seen share the vague idea that adverbs drag down the prose, rendering it lifeless. But adverbs can be useful, and the anti-adverb rule is a delicious one to break properly. The anti-adverb rule is inspired by legions of new writers who use adverbs badly.
An adverb used well must (1) say something, add something: the biggest problem i see with inexperienced writers is useless adverbs, and (2) and be worth one word: not important enough to replace the adverb with a phrase, or trivial enough to delete the adverb.
Here is my list of usually useless types of adverbs:
Qualifiers are words and phrases about how much or how true something is. Commonly along the lines of kinda or sorta, they suggest a writer unsure what they are saying is so, but if you’re writing fiction, you get to decide what is true. Other qualifiers emphasize how something is very much so (including reality adverbs, see below).
Not all adverbs are qualifiers, and not all qualifiers are adverbs. When an adverb is also a qualifiers you get the worst of both worlds. Unlike for adverbs,, there’s articles about qualifiers out there i find helpful:
This says, “The most commonly (overused) qualifiers are: rather, very, quite, usually, generally, somewhat, more, less, least, so, just, enough, indeed, still, almost, most, fairly, really, pretty much, even, a bit, a little, a good deal, a great deal, kind of, sort of.”
As with many bad habits, a good sign you’re using too many qualifiers or qualifying adverbs is two of them close to each other or even in the same sentence. The classic amusing case of this is a mitigating and an emphasizing qualifier together: “almost exactly a mile.” They cancel each other out and you can delete both.
“Definitely, absolutely, utterly, truly.” Though a subset of qualifiers, I give the ridiculous habit of using these words a separate category. Why remind me that something is real and true? It’s like how when someone says “I’m gonna be honest with you,” the implication is that normally they would lie.
“Completely” is often used as a reality adverb, though it can be useful when something could in fact be partial. (“In fact” is a reality term, but see how in the previous sentence it means something is surprising or remarkable, not thrown in for no reason). “Literally” is often mocked when used to mean figuratively. It can also be misused as a reality adverb. It should be used to say something is actually true IF it could be construed as figurative: “the sleepy shepherd was literally counting sheep.”
What about dialog, you ask? The inspiration for using these words is that some people talk like that. SOME people. Like you can have one or two characters who overuse these words a Valley Girl with her “totally” say. If you write about a subculture where everyone does this, I doubt it will work well if not from ample personal experience.
For reasons I can’t figure out, adverbs that express how fast something happens are done if the most abused. They are many of the classic redundancies: “hurried quickly.” And some the most easily combined into their verb: “ran quickly”=”sprinted.” “Moved slowly”=”crept.”
My biggest peeves are adverbs like “suddenly” and “immediately” and “instantly.” They’re often used when the suddenness is obvious. Or irrelevant: “at the sight of corpse she suddenly felt nauseous.” Why do I care how long she took to feel that? If it took a whole minute because her first reaction was to go numb, that might be worth mentioning. But “suddenly” doesn’t show me she’s more sensitive than average.
But what everyone most has to realize is that because these adverbs have SO many syllables, they slow down the prose precisely when it needs to be quick. If telling me something happened lickety-split really matters, a phrase of one syllable simple words is less obtrusive: “in the blink of an eye,” or if you’re cliche shy, “before I could even fart.”
Quantity vs. Quality:
You may notice a trend so far: the worst adverbs express quantity. How fast, how slow, how much–”very”, “somewhat.” Tremendously. Better adverbs express a quality, something fundamental the verb or adjective doesn’t express on its own (an adverb can modify another adverb, but I’m sure you see why I discourage piling adverbs on adverbs).
“Serreptitiously” is a quality adverb. “Secretly” or “quietly” may be less cumbersome–note how my least favorite adverbs tend to be gratuitously and undeservedly multisyllabic–but serreptitiously might get the meaning just right. Though it mustn’t be redundant as in “serreptitiously crept.” Instead it should alter the meaning. If “the police officer put her hand on her Glock,” she may intend to intimidate. But if she “serreptitiously put her hand on her Glock,” she’s preparing to draw first and win.
Dialog Emotion Adverbs:
“He said sadly.” “She replied cheerfully.” If you look up articles on adverbs, you’ll see this form of adverb use is among the most reviled. But there’s nothing that terrible about it except that it’s overused by beginners.
There are many ways to show emotion, so mix it up: (1) the character’s gesture or facial expression. (2) putting the emotion in the dialog itself, (3) a sentence about a POV character’s inner experience, (4) a said-bookism, like growled or moaned (these also must be used in moderation as they also get a bad rap).
So when would one use a dialog adverb? As with any adverb, when multiple words are too many and no words is too few, my next topic.
When Do You Want Just One Word?
Many advise that a phrase is better than an adverb, and heck, if something’s not important enough to develop into a phase or more, do you need to include it at all? Thus the hidden agenda of the anti-adverb extremists comes to light: your story should be simple and straightforward. Indeed, if it is like that, you ought to need few if any adverbs.
Yet sometimes both life and fiction are more complicated. Let’s summon a situation in which a king’s anger is relevant enough to note but not important enough for a phrase.
“Peasant militia in front, professional axemen behind until the moment is right. Cavalry on the flanks.” He eyed his nephew. “Put Scud with the axemen, so maybe he can be a man today.” Well that might not be right; he sounds like he’s challenging his nephew to rise to destiny, when he despises the guy. Instead let’s try to explain that:
“He eyed his nephew, a perennial disappointment. If he sent him into battle, if he didn’t by some odd chance show some worth, at least maybe fate would rid him of the brat.” No, that’s not right either. The king is focused on thousands of soldiers and his tribe is at stake. Ad verb prvides the mere footnote of contempt we might remember later:
“Put Scud with the axemen, so maybe he can be a man today,” he added contemptuously.’ Ah, this porridge is just right. To be candid, I’d use ‘with contempt,’ but that’s an ‘adverb phrase:’ the same idea without the multisyllabic thing.
A Word From Ernest Hemmingway:
That word from Hemingway is “instantly.” In For Whom the Bell Tolls, an important moment is when the hero, Robert Jordan, assigned to meet up with a band of guerrillas and ask them to help blow up a bridge, meets the leader of the group, Pilar.
‘She was looking into his face and smiling and he noticed she had fine gray eyes. “Do you come for us to do another train?” / “No,” said Robert Jordan, trusting her instantly. “For a bridge.”’
By the logic I just outlined, this important moment deserves more than a mere adverb, especially not “instantly,” one of velocity adverbs I heartily discourage. However, Hemingway did not use such adverbs carelessly like a novice writer, which tends to render velocity adverbs useless. And he had a famous talent for concision. So does breaking the rules work here? Let’s compare as we did with the king. First no words:
“No,” said Robert Jordan, trusting her. “For a bridge.”
As usual with an adverb like “instantly” or “suddenly,” even after deleting we can still tell something happened in a mere moment. But the flavor is different, as if Robert Jordan trusts easily if not compulsively. Or despite the risk, has to trust whoever he’s working with to be functional. Lost is the idea that he trusts from instinct or vibe. So since this is an important idea in an important moment, let’s try many words:
“No,” said Robert Jordan. He’d known many people in his dangerous life and had a solid sense of human nature, so he trusted her enough right away that he was already to share details.
Besides my spur-of-the-moment dull sentence, in this style he’s stopping to contemplate his feelings, self-analyze for the reader’s sake. Despite including “right away,” the sense of immediacy is lost. And worse, also lost is the sense that he’s fully aware of his instincts and feelings without being delayed, distracted or too focused on them.
So “instantly” it is. And that’s a second example of how to cope if you use too many adverbs: read it to yourself without the adverb, or substituting a phrase or more, and see which feels right. Also, another case of how the Dalai Lama’s famous quote applies to writing i so many ways: “Learn the rules thoroughly so you can break them properly.”