Adverbs: Are They Evil?
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” said Stephen King. Many writers have sworn off adverbs entirely and many others stand by them adamantly. In that sentence, I used two adverbs. Were they absolutely necessary? Probably not.
So, what are adverbs and why are they so controversial?
What Are Adverbs?
An adverb is any word that describes a verb. They usually end with -ly. Excitedly, quickly, and readily are all examples of adverbs. There are also many common adverbs that are difficult to notice, such as only, just, and well. For example, in the sentence, only she knows, only describes the word knows.
The Case Against Adverbs
Many times, an adverb and the word it describes can be replaced with a stronger, more direct verb. Anne walked slowly does not tell us much. This could be replaced with she trudged, which could imply that she’s tired. Or, if you want to say she’s unable to walk, you could say she limped. Or maybe Anne is a baby learning to walk, so she waddled. Using any of these words tells the reader far more about the way Anne walks than slowly, and they use less words to do so.
Even if you can’t find a strong verb to convey the message you are looking for, you might be able to imply the adverb through context. Instead of saying he spun around quickly, you could show that your athletic character is in the middle of a battle scene. Therefore, the reader can infer that his actions are quick without actually telling them. They said sheepishly could be replaced with they said if you have already revealed to your reader that your character is insecure or embarrassed. Readers are smart, and letting them make inferences about your story and characters keeps them engaged.
Sometimes, an adverb doesn’t even contribute to the sentence. After all, he whispered quietly and he whispered achieve the same purpose.
Adverbs can especially harm underwriters because adverbs are often used to tell, when you really want to show. You can tell your reader I jumped happily, or you can show your narrator’s emotions and explain why they are happy. Not only does this increase your word count, but it helps your readers feel the same emotions as your characters.
So, When Should You Use Adverbs?
This doesn’t mean adverbs are horrible and should never be used.
Sometimes, they are necessary. If your character cannot speak quietly, you might have to say he whispered loudly, showing your reader that he may have been overheard.
Adverbs can help emphasize something important that your reader might miss otherwise. In “Sure,” she said sarcastically, for instance, there is no danger of your reader thinking that your character said sure with a smile on her face. Though you could describe the tone of her voice or the context of the sentence to reveal her emotions, doing that for every piece of dialogue might get annoying for a reader.
Adverbs can also be used, like any other quirk, to develop a character’s voice. Maybe you have one narrator who overuses adverbs or a character who inserts surely into every other sentence.
Finding the Balance
Like most aspects of writing, adverbs are reflective of your writing style. You should avoid using them until necessary, but don’t be afraid to resort to them once in a while.
Do you think adverbs are evil? Let me know in the comments!