Writing Hacks #10: Nuke your adverbs

Alright, let’s kick this thing off and read a short paragraph about Reginald shall we?

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Let’s park for the moment whether you think the passage is good or bad, for the sake of this exercise, it actually doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we can do anything to make the passage better. This we will aim to do by decluttering the passage of its adverbs.

Er….What is an adverb?

An adverb is a modifier, typically (though not always) you’ll see an -ly on the end of it, like carefully, respectfully etc. Here’s a list of over 3000 of them. Google says adverbs are: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere ).

Ok got it. Why are adverbs so common in writing then?

What is often taught in schools about creative writing is completely at odds with what is taught by professional creative writing teachers. At school, children are encouraged to use flowery vocabulary and descriptive adverbs. In a sense, this is good, because it’s definitely worth having a broad and varied vocabulary at your disposal right? You have to use these words in order to learn them. No issue there. The problem is, this ‘bad habit’ carries on uncorrected and will feature in their future creative writing.

What’s your actual beef with adverbs themselves then?

My beef is that adverbs are explanation. When you hear the oft misunderstood edict to ‘show but don’t tell,’ what people actually mean is show but don’t explain. (Telling is fine but I’ll talk about that another time). Adverbs are a perfect example of this. You’re explaining the way something should be interpreted by the reader. Now what’s wrong with that? Well, as a general rule, readers enjoy working things out for themselves with the clues you give them. Therein lies the enjoyment. When you tell someone exactly how to interpret something, it becomes less interesting. There’s less for the reader to engage with. So there, that’s my beef with adverbs. That’s not to say they can never be used, there are no universals here. The main point is to be aware that you’re using an adverb and if you are, have a good reason for doing so.

So let’s revisit the passage from the beginning. Here i’ve bolded the adverbs.

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Now, we could just delete the adverbs, but in some cases we may benefit from using different words. So here’s a heavier edit.

“Reginald paced across the forecourt, bumping into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ he swatted his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper into a bin. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.”

Overall the whole things is shorter, tighter and more direct. Let’s examine why. Clearly ‘paced’ is preferable to the clunky ‘walked quite quickly’ (urgh it makes me shudder!). So using active verbs is a good tip for replacing some adverbs. She stepped quietly can become, she tiptoed. He said loudly can become he shouted/yelled/cried. Out of all the adverbs in the passage, the worst was probably ‘remorsefully’. Doesn’t it just stick out and poke you in the ribs? This is typical of a writer trying to get across an idea; in this case, that his character is annoyed that he won’t have time to read the paper. But it’s not necessary to explain that to your reader with the adverb. The reader will get it from the sentence that follows “He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.” which just so happens to be an example of Free Indirect Speech – check out Writing Hacks Week 8 if you want to read more about that technique.

Dhalsim’s approach to adverbs

As the great Stephen King says, “the path to hell is paved with adverbs.” Off you go then! Sharpen your machetes and watch your adverbs quietly tremble!

Happy writing

CH

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