February 6, 2010

The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs

Every single book and article I've read on writing has preached damnation to the adverb. It seems to be one of the golden rules of writing - kill the adverb!  Gabriel García Marquez refuses to use them, point blank, and will happily commit mass genocide to the adverb.  Stephen King also hates adverbs, although he's forgiving in the occasional use in the context of dialogue. Other writers can accept the occasional adverb every 50 pages or so.

Why are adverbs evil? The use of adverbs is perfectly legit when it comes to constructing a grammatically correct sentence. They convey information, so why are they made out to be literary pariahs? The simple answer is: adverbs make for lazy writing. Adverbs used in conjugation with weaker verbs could be expressed with a stronger, sophisticated verb and still mean the same thing, only it will be more effective.

Adverbs tend to end with the suffix "-ly", so it's a simple stylistic error that can be one of the easiest to clean up. Using the find application in the word processor can bring up all the guilty words ending with "-ly", or even go through a hard copy with a highlighter and mark them. Then one can go back over and replace the adverb + weak verb combination with the correct verb. Just by cutting out the adverbs, or at least culling them, can raise the quality of writing from amateur and lazy, to something more sophisticated.

In the context of dialogue attributions, using "she said nervously" could be conveyed by using "she said" plus a beat to show she is nervous. Immediately this calls the show don't tell rule into effect - just by eliminating adverbs.

But sometimes adverbs do work. But it is best to tackle adverbs with a critical eye - see if they can be improved to tighten up the writing.

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