Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Thing About Adverbs

In my last post, I made a snarky comment about the suckage of adverbs. Actually, I made mention of the fact that 87% of all writing advice on the internet boils down to not using them. A host of comments about said advice got me to thinking about why they're not so good. And then it hit me.

Adverbs suck because they are like nuclear energy, an answer to some problems, but also a weapon of mass destruction. Here, let me explain my thought by example.

Jimmy ran down the hallway.

Okay, in the previous sentence we learn something interesting about Jimmy, he was running. The sentence serves its purpose by conveying essential information about the character, namely that he is running. In a vacuum this is fine, but perhaps there is more going on here, you know, subtext. So, in the hands of our nameless author this becomes an opportunity to insert something subtle into the scene.

Jimmy ran plaintively down the hallway.

There, now it's all literary.Of course, the problem with something like that is I, the reader, have no idea what in the world to conjure up as a mental image now. What does plaintive running look like? I think the mythical writer is trying to be more descriptive, more precise, but instead, they confused matters. Adverbs, they may not suck in of themselves, but they really go a long way towards making things worse when used indiscriminately.

How should that sentence read? Well, I have no idea really. If I were to try my hand at writing a sentence that told that someone was sad, and running, then I would probably expand it into two sentences.Like this:

Jimmy tore down the hallway as fast as he could, his arms and legs pumping like pistons in a revving engine. He blinked back his tears and tried not to wonder if he was too late.

Granted, I've never been much of a wordsmith, and if I were to really try to improve on it I'd probably drop the simile altogether and maybe throw something else out there about his heart racing or something.

But the point is that single word, plaintively, sought to convey a lot of information but made things worse - probably have been better off if it were just nixed. If my melodramatic version was too much, then I'd rather just say 'he ran'. I'd rather be a bit too bland than over the top.

But like many powerful weapons, adverbs are enticing, and they hold so much power that it can be hard to resist. Then they blow up and you've irradiated your whole story. So, like gun safety, sometimes it's just easier to say to avoid them altogether instead of using them wisely.

That's my take anyway. Do with it what you will.
Adverbs again? Don't make me do more math.


Rogue Mutt said...

Sure you can use 10 words when one will do. Sometimes it's better to just say that he ran down the hallway.

Rusty Webb said...

Good point, although if we're trying to get something nuanced across then one isn't enough. But in principal, I agree.

Suze said...

How about:

'Jimmy tore down the hallway, his arms and legs pistons in a revving engine. He blinked back tears and tried not to think about what would happen if he was too late.'

Screw the right adverb. If it presents itself, aces. If it ain't there, try another trick in the goodie bag, Felix.

Super-cool-guy post. I like.

Deborah Walker said...

Great example. I never understood why people hated them. 'Plaintively' is a poor choice in the sentence, because it's difficult to comprehend. I mean, how exactly does one run plaintively?

KarenG said...

Although overuse of adverbs waters down the writing, sometimes they can be used!! And as for your plaintively sentence, that's the one that intrigued me the most. Because I'm thinking, what's wrong with Jimmy? Who is Jimmy? Why is he sad and running at the same time? But the other sentences were about some action that happened or was about to happen and I really didn't care. I cared more about plaintive little Jimmy.

Laila Knight said...

I see your point. I don't care for plaintively as an adverb. It has me saying, "what the heck was that kid doing?" That was very nice how you expanded it into two sentences. I would much rather read that than the first. :)

Michael Offutt said...

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Stephen Tremp said...

I have an awesome editor who picks up my over used words and we take out pretty much all that we can while leaving the meaning of the text intact. Mine is action adventure so I need to keep sentences shorter and forget about many of the adverbs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And I have an awesome critique partner who pounces on adverbs like a hawk! (And it's not a pretty sight.)

Andrew said...

I really think the main issue with adverbs is that it really breaks down into 90% of adverb usage being two very often used words: very and really. It's a very, very bad problem, and people should really learn to use other words. Verily.

Anonymous said...

that was too clever Andrew. what are you hiding?