Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Don't Adverb

In all the books on writing that I've studied, one tip crops up time and time again.

Don't use adverbs. (1)

Because I only have a year or so of real writing experience under my belt, I've taken this as gospel. But I didn't really understand why until I read a post over at Flogging The Quill.

The post is all about showing and telling, and this is the line that turned the light bulb on in my head:

I believe that the use of adverbs is merely a form of telling.

That did it for me. It's something that's related to compression as well. Make the dialogue, the action, even the description show the reader what is happening. That way you don't need to repeat what you've already said. And repetition tends to dilute the writing. The idea gets spread out and ends up thinner for it.

It's totally possible to write an entire novel without a single adverb, and I think that the writing ends up stronger, because the writer is forced to think of a different way to show, and showing leads to more immediate prose.

I searched for some quotes to back me up on this, but Chip Scanlan's already done it for me. And he's taken the time to look at the issue from both sides.

In fact, if I'd stumbled across the article before I wrote this, I might have just posted a link to it.

But then I wouldn't have said it my way.

  1. What's an adverb I hear you say? What, you already know? Sorry, I can't hear you.
    An adverb is an adjective that modifies a verb.
    Or ...
    An adverb is, most of the time, a word that ends in -ly.
    Slowly, quietly, righteously, glowingly, disgustingly.(2)
  2. My first footnote!


Tribe said...

Adverbs are indeed evil. They have no place in writing. None whatsoever.

And I mean that seriously.

Jennifer Jordan said...

I completely agree with you Tribe. Adverbs are vastly overused.

Daniel Hatadi said...


M said...

I am glad you defined adverbs. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

I've heard the same said for adjectives. Just use the strongest noun, the strongest verb, in each case.

But I'm also sure that in 10 years there will be an adverb and adjective resurgence. Just for the hell of it.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Write a book without adverbs? That's easy. But writing one with nothing but adverbs, now that's tough.

James Lincoln Warren said...

"Show, don't tell" is right on up there with "Write what you know" as among the worst and most hackneyed advice ever dispensed about writing.

Ray's examples don't really show the difference between them, either -- what he's actually talking about is avoiding "nail-on-the-head" writing.

"Showing" is expressing something dynamically, through action. "Telling" is expressing something staticly, as a condition. These are both techniques. The technique to use is the one that's appropriate to the moment in the story it describes.

And yes, you can "tell" without being nail-on-the-head. One of Ray's examples of "showing", Jesse felt like an overcooked chicken, his meat damn near ready to fall off his bones, is not showing at all. Where's the action? There is none. This is good telling.

Likewise, adverbs are fine by me.

The only question worth asking about technique is this: is there a better way to express what I'm trying to say?

Daniel Hatadi said...

James, the 'chicken' example you referred to struck me as not being a particularly good one as well, but I couldn't articulate what exactly was wrong about it.

I'm also in agreement with you in relation to showing and telling. Sometimes one is better than the other and you have to choose which.

Thanks for the advice, you've given much to ponder over.

Would you be interested in writing up a post going into more detail on 'nail-on-the-head' writing, maybe with some examples?

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, you couldn't possible "show" everything in a book. It would be 12000 pages long.

At some point someone needs to just pick up the frying pan and whack someone. Not caress the cold handle, fingers tightening with resolve as the blood pulses in his ears and he waits, waits, wondering what it will be like, wondering about the liberty, the sheer exhileration...

You get the idea. Just whack her over the head, dammit!

James Lincoln Warren said...

Most of my incredibly sage advice on writing, including a sentence or two on nail-on-the-head writing, can be found on my website at:

Do not be put off by the requirement for a password. If you think about it long enough, you will figure out what the password is.