Why “Never Use Adverbs” Is Bad Writing Advice

Posted August 20, 2015 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 4 Comments

Never-Use-Adverbs

Let’s debunk this bad boy. Beyond the fact that “never” is an adverb, which is a fun little irony for you.

What IS an adverb?

An adverb is more than a word that modifies a verb — but it’s a good start. Adverbs are versatile little words that can modify anything except nouns. (Because if a word modifies a noun, it’s an adjective.)

Adverbs answer questions such as “How?” (manner of action) or “When?” (time and frequency) or “Where?” (place). Never and not are both adverbs, for example, but so are quickly and rarely and very.

Imagine writing a book without using “not.”

I can’t imagine it, because adverbs play a vital role in communicating meaning. Like most advice that tells you to eliminate every instance or never do x, y, z, it fails to take into consideration the full picture.

Where does this “no adverbs” advice come from?

Overusing adverbs — like any other word or phrase — can be bad. Contrary to the title of this post, caution against too many adverbs is good advice. But it’s important to know the WHY behind the advice before you apply it willy-nilly.

When people tell you to “avoid adverbs,” what they really mean is to reduce the number of -ly adverbs (and very) — because doing so enriches your writing. For example:

very tired –> exhausted

said loudly –> shouted

It’s not just about deleting the offending word, but rewriting for more vivid descriptions. Adverbs, especially those that end with -ly, can distance your reader from the story. They’re not able to FEEL and EXPERIENCE the story along with your characters.

Additionally, some adverbs (really, very, extremely, totally, actually, suddenly) are words we use in speech to add emphasis. In writing, it has the opposite effect. Removing those words can strengthen your writing and make it more powerful.

What might “avoid adverbs” look like?

When I wrote about why every author should get The Emotion Thesaurus (still true!), I took the following lines through some changes to demonstrate why adverbs (like angrily) do little for your writing.

“How dare you,” he said angrily. He felt so betrayed by what she had done.

becomes

He slammed his fist into the wall. “How dare you,” he said, his words low and quiet. His nostrils flared, and he swallowed hard against her betrayal. Why had she done it? A pain, sharp and deep, stabbed his chest as he waited for her answer.

Avoiding adverbs involves showing with description what’s happening. So when you encounter advice that tells you to eliminate adverbs, what they want you to do is take the time to set the scene and ground the reader within the POV.

Tags: , ,

4 responses to “Why “Never Use Adverbs” Is Bad Writing Advice

  1. Kit

    I am glad you debunked another this insidious myth, Amanda! #HUGS

    I enjoy adverbs – lol – but, yes, overusing them makes us look lazy!

    Thanks
    Kitto

  2. I’m so glad to see some clarification on this myth. Sometimes adverbs are unavoidable. I use them sometimes, but often it’s because my WIP is 1st person perspective of a teenage girl and that’s how she talks. Not to say I didn’t go back and cut or change them later…

    But I’m glad you wrote this. I don’t think people need to feel guilty for using words ending in -ly every now and then. It’s only bad writing if it’s ALL THE TIME!

    • That’s a GREAT point about characters, Samantha. If your character is more likely to use adverbs, they should make an appearance in your manuscript, otherwise you’re not allowing your character to be his or herself, and readers will pick up on that.

Leave a Reply