If you’ve been a writer for more than 3.5 seconds, then you might be asking yourself, why do writers hate adverbs?
Almost every how-to book on writing, author blog, or course on writing lectures at length on the evils of adverbs. As one of eight major parts of language, you think they would get more play.
So what’s with the adverb hate?
Why do writers hate adverbs? Writers hate adverbs because many new or inexperienced writers misuse them. It’s not that adverbs are bad, it’s that many beginning writers don’t know how and when to effectively use them.
Like posts about language and hacks for your writing? Read my post on Can you write a scary story in 150 words? (7 Scary Good Shortcuts)
In his autobiographical instruction book, On Writing, Stephen King laments over the adverb and her ugly stepsister, the adjective. He goes as far as to say that you should chuck your thesaurus in the trash.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs– Stephen King
What Writers Say About Adverbs
In fact, you’ll have to search far and wide to find a source that speaks in even slightly positive terms about adverbs.
Take these titles and phrases from several online articles and forums about adverbs:
“Crusade against adverbs”
“Heavily maligned adverbs”
“Adverbs are the last bastion of lazy writing”
There is a lot of confusion over adverbs with few sources of good, solid information for how to effectively apply adverbs to your writing. So I did the heavy research for you. This post shares all the adverb secrets.
Here Are All the Reasons Writers Hate Adverbs
I thought it might be helpful to give a quick rundown of the most common reasons writers hate adverbs. Most of these reasons may not surprise you, but they can help you identify possible problem areas in your own writing.
Take a look at this list of reasons authors hate adverbs:
- They don’t add anything to the sentence
- They sometimes show lazy writing
- They take power and impact away from sentences
- Many beginning writers misuse and overuse them
- Many writers don’t know how to properly use an adverb
- The adverb is clunky
- The adverb adds word count without adding value
- The adverb is misplaced
- The adverb is repetitive and unnecessary
- The adverb is telling, not showing
What Is an Adverb?
When dealing with grammar, I find it most helpful to start as simply as possible..
An adverb is a qualifier or modifier. Basically, it tells you about another word.
Typically, an adverb will tell you about an adjective, a verb, or another adverb. An adverb can be a word or a phrase, so it’s not always easy to spot. What might be most useful is to know that adverbs give you more information about a word.
That brings us to the next point: there are more than one type of adverbs. In fact, there are six!
The 5 Types of Adverbs
There are six different types of adverbs. As a general rule, each type of adverb gives you a different type of information.
Here is a short list:
- Adverb of Manner
- Adverb of Place
- Adverb of Time
- Adverb of Frequency
- Adverb of Degree
- Adverb of Level of Certainty
Another way to look at the different types of adverbs is to think about them in terms of the questions they ask. Again, an adverb always gives you more information about another word (or phrase).
Adverbs Answer the Following Types of Questions
Here is a quick list of common questions that adverbs ask of other words. Keep in mind that the questions relate to the types of adverbs.
- In what way?
- To what extent? How Much?
Are Adverbs Bad in Writing?
Some writers, like Stephen King, really do hate adverbs. However, most writers understand that they have their place in language, and that often a more precise verb is more powerful.
Take these sentences for example:
He walked clumsily.
She drank slowly.
He ran boldly.
They spoke eagerly.
Maybe it’s really not about hate but about the effectiveness of language and personal choice. But to answer your question, “No, adverbs aren’t always bad in writing.”
It depends on how you use them.
How To Avoid Using Adverbs in Writing
Now that you may be convinced of the evils of adverbs, how do you avoid using them in your writing? (Don’t worry, we will get to how to use them in a few moments).
Don’t Leave Them Out
This obvious advice has to be said, so let’s get it out of the way early. The best way to avoid adverbs in your writing is to leave them out in the first place.
With more practice and repetition of the skill of spotting and replacing adverbs, the better you will become at preventing adverbs from worming their way into your text.
Replace Them with Vivid Verbs
If and when you do find adverbs in your writing, a best practice of professional writers (I’m looking at your Mr. King) is to replace them with vivid verbs.
What is a vivid verb? It is an active verb with strong force and emotion.
Here are 20 to get you started:
Not enough for you? Here is a PDF list of around 250 verbs.
Use Character Gestures
One of the ways to avoid adverbs is to focus on character gestures. This comes back to showing, not telling.
You still want to choose vivid verbs but the mental shift to gestures should help concentrate your energies on language typically more powerful than adverbs.
What kind of gestures?
- She massaged the back of her neck
- He raked his fingers through his hair
- She sighed
- He stared out at the sea
- She cocked her head
Want more gestures? Here’s a post with a master list of them.
Edit Adverbs Out in Revisions
You can always edit adverbs out during the revision stage. A useful hint for finding adverbs is to look for words that end in -ly. By doing so, you will catch most adverbs.
- Fascinatingly (yeah, this one hurt to type out lol)
This isn’t a foolproof strategy, as some adverbs, such as anywhere and somewhere, don’t end in -ly.
List of Adverbs that Don’t End in -ly
Now, this isn’t a comprehensive list but it is a great start. You’ll see links in a moment to massive lists of adverbs, in case you are curious.
Use Editing Apps
These are free online tools to identify adverbs. You can then examine the adverbs more closely for possible removal and replacement with stronger verbs.
The Hemingway app tracks:
- Your word count
- Number of adverbs
- Use of passive voice
Search and Destroy Common Adverbs
If you’re like most writers, you sometimes overuse the same words. I use “just” a lot.
You can actually use free online software like wordcounter.net to capture how many times you use certain words.
If you discover that you repeat a certain adverb, you can use the search feature in Word to find each instance. Then you can replace it with a different word.
Here’s a link to the most used 250 adverbs by frequency: https://www.talkenglish.com/vocabulary/top-250-adverbs.aspx
Here’s another blog post with tons of adverb examples by type.
When you are ready to level up your writing, check out my post on The Best Writing Books For Beginners.
Why Do Writers Use Adverbs?
There’s actually a few answers to this question.
Many beginning writers use adverbs instead of taking the time to find a more powerful verb. They also position them in a sentence in a way that creates confusion ionstead of clarity.
More experienced writers might skip the effort and use adverbs occasionally, but they also might use adverbs unintentionally (without awareness) in the process of crafting a story or piece of content. No one is perfect and there is never an expectation of perfection in a writer of any level.
Expert writers who have mastered their craft sometimes use adverbs intentionally to more precisely communicate an idea. More on how to artfly use adverbs in a moment.
Many Best-selling Books that Use Tons of Adverbs Everywhere—Why are Beginner Writers Told Not To Use Them?
This is a very reasonable question. The truth is: many best-selling novels do contain adverbs. So, why can’t new or aspiring writers use them?
First, you can use them.
There is no adverb police that will magically appear and slap your hand if you type an adverb (But Stephen King is working on it, so watch out!
Second, if you look more closely at most bestselling books, you’ll see that the author didn’t use them as liberally as you might have imagined. Instead, the author applied adverbs selectively and with precision. This is the expert use of adverbs.
How do you imitate how professional writers apply adverbs? It starts by swinging the spotlight onto the reader.
What Do Adverbs Do to the Reader?
Something I stumbled across on Reddit spoke to me: Verbs emotionally affect the reader, adverbs intellectually.
This is of utmost importance. You must always think about how your use of language affects the reader. One major difference between writing that explodes on the page and writing that falls flat is the depth of emotion in your prose.
Perhaps the most critical reason to limit adverbs in your writing is how adverbs so often strip emotion away from words.
She smiled happily.
Notice how the adverb “happily” in the first sentence focuses on informational content, while the stronger verb “cheesed” packs an emotional punch.
Not always, though. Sometimes adverbs offer keen insight into conflicted emotions, hidden emotions or surprising emotions.
Take, for example, this sentence: She laughed bitterly.
Unless by action, inner dialogue, or the point of view of another character, we might not understand the bitterness beneath the laughter. Adverbs, then, can offer occasional depth, a kind of behind-the-scenes subtext of revelation.
When To Use Adverbs in Writing
You can use adverbs sparingly in your writing when you want to clarify meaning that is otherwise not obvious.
She smiled mournfully.
When most people think of smiling, they don’t think of mourning. In this case, the adverb adds a deeper level of meaning.
However, don’t use an adverb when it repeats the meaning of the verb. These are redundant adverbs that don’t add any extra information. For example, don’t say “plunged swiftly” or “plunged down”. Is there any other way to plunge?
Exception: If you are writing about magic, supernatural forces, or advanced technology, perhaps “plunging upwards” is possible. If the adverb adds unusual or unexpected information, you should consider keeping it.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s an elaboration on the original poster’s rule of thumb – with examples!
How To Use Adverbs in Writing
Note: This section is intended for the editing stage of writing, not the first draft.
A few helpful steps can make the difference between strong and weak language.
- Identify opportunities for adverbs.
- Ask, “Do I need this adverb?”
- Ask, “Does the adverb add additional information?”
- Ask, “Does the adverb give unusual or nonobvious subtext?”
- Ask, “Is this the best way to say it?”
- Review the context (The surrounding paragraphs and sentences).
Once you ask those six questions, you now understand your sentence and your adverb. If, after all that, you still think you need the adverb, by all means, keep that sucker.
Where To Use Adverbs
When in doubt, place the adverb immediately before or immediately after the verb or adjective.
Like this: She sprinted drunkenly across the field.
Not this: She sprinted across the field, onto the road at the far end of the farm, drunkenly.
If you position an adverb far away from the word it modifies, you can create confusion for the reader. Is the farm in the example sentence drunk?? This, fellow writer, is called a misplaced adverb.
Formatting your sentence for clarity is sometimes tricky. It might be necessary to rewrite a sentence with a different structure to position the adverb.
Adverbs in Published Books
Sometimes the best way to riddle out adverbs is to see them used in published books.
“Slowly, even so slowly, comprehension and compassion become possible things, and the transparent curtain is gone and faces are no longer strange.”-Robert Ardry, African Genesis
“You’re already getting one,” she added critically, looking at his shoulders.”Stephen King, The Stand.
“It was nearly five-thirty, a spring Friday, and the congestion in the Washington streets was awful.”Robert Ludlum, The Matlock Paper.
This next bit is from wwww.potterforums.com. it’s mostly for fun, but it does have a mighty point:
Does anyone else get sick of reading calmly, serenely, cheerfully, smilingly after everything Dumbledore says? By the sixth book I keep thinking, “Alright! I get it! . . . I don’t need to be reminded with calmly stamped after every sentence. J. K. Rowling’s adverb affair is the only thing I find tedious when reading the HP books. Gems like unconcernedly, disconcertedly, disconcertingly, reprovingly. AGH! But the Dumbledore adverbs by far outstrip the rest when it comes to pointless repetition.
That nerd rant aside, I understand the books are for a wide audience that includes children, and those kinds of dialogue tack-ons are there to reduce the chance of the reader misunderstanding what the author intends in the character’s dialogue. But still.
“What are those things?” Harry asked, terrifiedly-ly.
“They are adverbs, Harry,” Dumbledore replied serenely, “There is nothing to be feared from an adverb, Harry. It is only fear of not being understood that we see when we find an adverb,” he added calmly.
“But still,” said Harry unargumentatively but still worryingly. “They’re pretty annoying after the 500th reading,” he added, trying to sound as calmly and serenely and cheerfully and smilingly as Dumbledore.
“Yes, I think that once we try to use them after every sentence, we will find them less useful. We shall then call to our aid long sentences that basically denote the same thing,” he said as if they weren’t floating through a sea of obnoxious adverbs but discussing the matter over drinks.I originally found this treasure on the Live Write Thrive blog post about adverbs.
Statistician and journalist Ben Blatt crunched the numbers of 1,500 beloved books (including classics and modern-day popular fiction). He put his findings in a book, Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve—The Literary Quirks And Oddities Of Our Most-Loved Authors.
Here is a short-list of what he found:
- Books with less than 50 adverbs per every 10,000 words were two-thirds more likely to be praised by critics.
- Hemingway used approximately 80 adverbs in every 10,000 words.
- J.K. Rowling used 140 per 10,m000 words.
“Adverbs are an indicator of a writer’s focus. An author writing with the clarity needed to describe vivid scenes and actions without adverbs, taking the time to whittle away the unnecessary words, might also be spending more time and effort making the rest of the text as perfect as possible.”– Ben Blatt, author and statistician
What’s the Difference Between an Adverb and an Adjective?
The quick and simple answer is that adjectives give us information about nouns (person, place or thing). Adverbs add information about verbs, adjectives, other adverbs or entire sentences.
The exception to this distinction is that adjectives can describe or modify linking verbs.
Wait, what are linking verbs? Linking verbs (are, am, is) connect the subject of the sentence to the rest of the sentence without showing action.
Here are a few examples (with lining verbs bolded)to make this point crystal clear:
- She is putty in his hands.
- The shoes smell gross.
- He felt sleepy after working all day.
Three Phases of Mastery (Adverbs)
When learning any new idea, habit or skill, it’s helpful to understand the predictable progression of understanding and application. Learning adverbs is no different.
The three phases of mastery:
- We learn all the rules
- We master all the rules
- We break the rules (with intention and precision)
Writing shouldn’t be a list of rules for what NOT the do. Writing should be fun and entertaining Hit a launch pad for freedom of expression.
Constraining writing with a litany of rules chokes the life out of language. Yes, learn the rules, master them, and then learn to break them.
Before you go, read Writing Sprints: The Ultimate Guide to Successful Writing Sprints.
Why do writers hate adverbs? In short, we don’t. We are just in love with language.