Writing: the adverb struggle

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard/read any kind of the ‘adverbs are bad’ and ‘how/why to remove adverbs’ when it comes to creative writing. I guess it’s and endless topic and a never-ending debate, so I cam taking my shot at it as well, to share my experience, opinion, and maybe even advice.

By the time I am drafting this post, I’ve reached the ‘750 hours of writing done on my current WIP’ milestone (*blows airhorn*) – so I might actually know something about writing already, right?

I am not really sure. But I try my best, whether it’s absorbing advice from fellow writers or just improvising. When you begin writing, chances are that adverbs will splill into your writing like spring flood from melted snow.

Where are they coming from?

The brain, the mouth, the hand, the eyes – they are not always in sync. After all, the ‘hand is faster than the eye’ is the base of most illusions in ‘magic’ shows. And people use fillers such as ‘sort of’ during speeches to re-sync their brain (thoughts) with their mouth. In a similar manner, I believe that some adverbs make their way into both written and spoken (more on that soon) word by this de-sync.

The second case is that, when writing an early draft (or rewriting a scene from scratch), you need to get the thoughts out in some form – even if very raw – so you can work on it later. In those moments, an adverb will do the job faster than searching for a powerful word or writing an elaborate description that shows instead of telling – because you can edit that later, right? (And you can forget it or just get used to it so much you ignore it every single draft but that’s a different topic)

When are adverbs (not) bad?

The million dollar question, right? Here comes the time when I’ll try to be helpful and go through some typical cases, trying to back them up with a solid reasoning.

Dialogue tags

Let’s start with the worst offender. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to identify who’s speaking. A dialogue tag consists of the name, the tag itself (said, shouted, …) and possibly something that gives some details on the manner of talk not said by the tag itself – such as tone or body language.

Do not do this by adverbs! I had to learn the hard way. Why? Dialogue tags are, by their nature, quite mechanical – which is why it’s good to have a look at the right amount of dialogue tags to be used (again, another topic).

Adverbs only make it worse. Which is why showing (instead of single adverb) is preferable: they break the mechanical nature of written dialogue. Of course, then the struggle comes with mastering the technique (because the trouble never end, hah!). And when you can’t (or don’t want to) do this, choose a stronger verb instead (more on that two points below).

Dialogue itself

While dialogue tags suffer from adverbs, dialogue itself is pretty much the opposite. Why? Because people use adverbs in dialogue. Thus, when used in moderation, they make dialogue realistic. The reason is something I mentioned earlier: they are buffers to fix the de-sync between the thoughts and the words voicing them. If people searched for better words instead of using adverbs when talking, it would only make the de-sync worse and their thoughts would probably wander from whatever they are talking about to thoughts about their vocabulary.

So, in direct speech (and possibly internal thoughts), adverbs are passable, when used in moderation.

‘Quick’ descriptions

Sometimes, the details are not just that important. Sometimes, just knowing someone’s walking clumsily somewhere is well enough and we don’t need a paragraph-size descriptions of the character’s legs about to trip one another or being unsteady or whatever is the source of the clumsiness.

So, an adverb in such case is okay, right? Nope. This is the prime case calling for a ‘stronger verb’ – instead of walking clumsily, they stumble. (example taken from a sentence in my WIP that was unedited for 6 drafts, bah) You see, it gets the point across even faster! It’s inevitable that the early drafts will have a lot of adverbs used in this manner – and they’re one of the things that should probably be edited out as soon as possible.

This is also what I meant by the last part of the ‘dialogue tags’ section: whispering will work better than talking silently.

Beware of stacking

One more note on this: should you decide the moment favors a quick description over something more elaborate, make sure you don’t stack it too much. Being drained is better than being utterly spent – but then you can wonder: what about utterly drained? It’s definitely stronger!

And where would that stop? If you can’t make the reader understand how drained the character is (and why) without trying to squeeze in another adverb, I guess there’s some larger issue lurking and the whole passage is a makeover candidate.

Of course, there are some limited cases when this makes sense. Someone on the market saying that his fish is ‘absolutely the most freshest fish in the whole kindgom’ is a monstrosity – but for a situation when someone is pushing something hard, it makes sense – because such moments are based on exxageration.

Descriptive passages

Descriptions are a nasty adverb trap. Why say a throne’s armrests are just carved when they can be beautifully carved? Nope. Unlike the previous case, using a stronger verb would probably not help much. Why?

Let’s take this throne as an example. If someone paid the money for something with intricate carving instead of a simple chair, there’s a reason for it. And you can use those to show more about the setting: the carvings could show heraldry (and thus hint history), mythology, geograpical/natural features, or the art style of the fictional society (for example, a lord of a province famous for its vineyards could have the armrest shaped like typical climbing vine plants).

Thus, if an adverb could be replaced by something that shows more about the characters/setting, it would be good to consider – but be careful to not overdo it, you don’t want the readers to read more descriptions than the plot.

I believe I’ve covered the major cases. Feel free to add your thoughts or experiences – sharing them is how we learn. And, as I said, if you’d want me to delve deeper into a topic, let me know.

Until next time, good luck and have fun writing!

4 thoughts on “Writing: the adverb struggle

  1. The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler was an amazing book (with great ratings on Amazon), and it used adverbs as dialogue tags and more… and it worked beautifully. I was pretty amazed when I noticed it, because I grew up with the whole “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” thing.

    I’m sure there’s a balance between zero and too many. As a reader, if the storytelling is good, I barely notice them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess balance is always the key. Likewise, different readers have different sensitivity so while one might find something too much, another might not notice at all. And I think you’re right that good storytelling beats almost anything.

      Liked by 1 person

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