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Why I hate adverbs

Previously posted on my old blog, "Start As Close to the End As Possible".

Adverbs kill ideas. If you are trying to express an action, or demonstrate something meaningful, adverbs will often weaken the sentence. It feels like you’re intensifying it, while you’re writing, but when it’s read all the oomph is gone.

Some examples:

“He ran quickly to the store, hoping to get the last copy.”

Well, obviously he ran quickly. That’s the point of running. Phrased as, “he ran to the store, hoping to get the last copy,” we’ve saved a word, and preserved the urgency through parsimony. Even better, by this point in the story we probably already know he wants the last copy. So, “he ran to the store,” leaves us hooked, and we’re hoping he gets the last copy.

“She screamed, angrily.”

Again, the story to this point will have already shown us why she is screaming. “Angrily” hushes it.

“He stopped abruptly.”

Stopping is typically abrupt.

There are times when adverbs like these can be useful, but it’s worth considering if they are necessary. If the sentence works just fine without them, it probably works better without them.

Adverbs, along with adjectives added to dialogue tags, slow the reader down, and usually provide them with no new information. So don't say:

"I hate you," she whispered softly.

When you can say:

"I hate you," she whispered.

The second one is even more fierce, because we're filling in the "softly" ourselves, knowing that whispers are typically soft.

And if a word in your story doesn't provide new information, you should cut it.

Here's an extreme example to show you just how much you can communicate with limited adverbs and no adjectives in your dialogue tags:

“They didn’t find anything, but I’m not sure how hard they were looking,” he said.

“Well, I guess they didn’t have a reason to. Which is good,” she said.

“Yeah, but we really need to get things cleaned up.”

“I can’t today, but give me a shout tomorrow, and we’ll see.”

“Um, okay.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I just can’t make it. You know this.”

“It can’t wait, so I guess I’ll just do it.”

“It can wait. I’ll help you tomorrow. It’ll be fine.”

“No, no, I’ll just do it,” he said.

“Fine.”

“It’s fine, we’ll catch up tomorrow and I’ll let you know if I end up needing help.”

“Okay, fair. Sorry.”

“Really, it’s cool,” he said.

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

So here we have two characters talking about a mess that needs to be cleaned up. It may not be serious, but it’s clear that it needs to be done. You can also see that it goes from calm, to somewhat tense, to an amicable if not perfect resolution. And then we find out how close their relationship is. All without spelling out any of those feelings.

It can be done. In a real story there would be some description, some nested exposition, and maybe even an adverb or two to help the reader along. But they are not necessary to demonstrate emotions.

When possible, show, don’t tell. It makes your story cleaner, more engaging, and more sincere.