What’s wrong with adverbs?

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. An adverb is a word that modifies or describes another word in your sentence—usually verbs, other adverbs, or adjectives. They are important tools and can provide necessary information, but it’s important to be aware of how you’re using them in your writing.

Adverbs get a bad rep when writers use adverbs to prop up lazy writing. Like many writing “rules”, it all comes back to the age old show, don’t tell principle and conciseness.

Look at the following two paragraphs:

“You’re going to pay,” Alex said icily. He walked angrily out of the room, leaving Bob to stare stupidly after him. The door slammed loudly as he left.

“You’re going to pay.” Alex said. He stalked out of the room, leaving Bob to stand there, frozen, one hand still raised to reach for his coffee mug. He’d had never heard Alex sound so cold. The door slammed as he left.

These two paragraphs say almost the same thing, but the difference in strength of the writing is apparent. The adverbs tell us how Alex and Bob feel and act, but we don’t need to be told in the second paragraph; we know.

In some cases, the adverbs were telling us something the verb already told us, like with slammed and loudly. Loudness is already conveyed in slammed. There is no other way to slam a door than to do it loudly, so this adverb a wasted word and should be cut.

Should adverbs be completely banished?

No. Like all writing rules, avoiding adverbs is by no means ironclad. If there is a sentence that this one adverb brighten up, and nothing else will do, by all means use it. If you need it to convey information, use it. But whenever you come across an adverb while editing your writing, you should consider:

a) What does it add that is unique?

b) Is there any better way I can convey the information?

c) Is it part of a dialogue tag?

If the adverb gives unique information, then it serves a purpose. Often though, you’ll find the information given by the adverb is already shown elsewhere in your text. Readers don’t like it when you repeat things they already know.

If it’s a part of a dialogue tag, it’s best to remove the adverb. As discussed on my previous post on said, there are better ways to convey information in dialogue, through interspersing action between the characters talking. However, adverbs are natural in everyday speech, so they definitely belong inside quotation marks. You can use them to make your characters speak realistically.

Tips for avoiding unnecessary adverbs
  • Choose more powerful verbs. The English language is rife with verbs, many of which mean something similar but have different connotations. You can write, but you can also scribble, pen, address, jot, compose, draft, or scrawl. Select a strong verb, and you will have no need for an adverb.
  • Focus on small details. Instead of tapping on something nervously, describe their tapping so that it shows their nerves.
  • Don’t be afraid of short sentences. They are useful and don’t need to be filled with fluff to make them longer.
  • Leave out very and really.
Conclusion

It’s hard to let go of purposeless adverbs. I, like most writers, find them all the time in my writing and have to prune them out when editing. Make sure the adverbs you’re using serve a purpose, and your writing will be stronger and more engaging.

However, adverbs should not be stressing you out during the first draft. Concentrate on getting your story down, and worry about adverbs or other style issues when editing.

Is said dead?

You’ll see posts with hundreds of synonyms to use instead of the dread said. The same day you see posts advocating for its exclusive use. What’s a writer to do?

Said (or says, depending on your tense) is the single most precise word to use in your dialogue tag. In fact, it functions almost as a punctuation mark, because the reader simply won’t see it. Any other word you chose to replace it will not be able to achieve the same effect.

In addition, switching to primarily using said in your writing will help enormously with showing rather than telling. Restricting yourself from using synonyms for said forces you to show the tones of the conversation without using the crutch of telling the reader how they are speaking.

The argument against said is that it is boring to use the same word over and over again. Which is absolutely true. Using the word said in the same way over and over again is tedious at best.

However, the problem is not with the word said itself. Look at this conversation:

“Good morning,” said Bob.

“How are you?” said Alex.

“I’m fine. How are you?” Bob said.

Ugh. No one wants to read that. Beyond the dull topic I chose (conflict in dialogue is a post for another time), the repetition of the words and the rhythm of the words is enough to put any reader to sleep. Now switch out said for synonyms:

“Good morning,” mumbled Bob.

“How are you?” inquired Alex.

“I’m fine. How are you?” drawled Bob.

This does give more information, but not the whole picture. And it tells us the information, rather then letting us read between the lines.

“Good morning,” Bob mumbled sleepily.

“How are you?” Alex inquired cheerfully.

“I’m fine. How are you?” Bob drawled sarcastically.

Adding adverbs here not only is a crutch used to tell the audience some more information, but it doesn’t add to the dialogue. It still has the repetitive rhythm that puts us to sleep.

The trick is not to replace said or use adverbs to bedazzle your attributions but to intersperse your dialogue tags with actions or description, or even leave them out altogether if it is clear who is talking at that moment.

“Good morning,” Bob said and shuffled over to the break room table, collapsing into a chair and slumping until his head rested on table.

Alex didn’t bother to hide his smile. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Bob said, muffled by his arms. He raised his head, and if looks could kill, Alex wouldn’t have to worry about the meeting later that morning. “How are you?”

Now we have the same dialogue, but we know the setting, something about each of our characters, the relationship between them, and their moods, in addition to being able to picture how the characters are speaking. All without telling the reading anything. It’s also much more natural and as some conflict is present more interesting to read.

This is not to say that those synonym posts aren’t extremely useful. Sometimes throwing in one grumbled or gargled is exactly what you need to spark some life in your dialogue—but please not laughed or cackled, smirked or smiled. When is the last time you heard someone smirk a word? Have you ever tried to laugh words?

Conclusion

The next time you’re editing or writing your dialogue, don’t shy away from the word said. It exists for a reason; if you’re replacing it, make sure it’s in a way to create powerful impact, not because you don’t know how else to convey your characters moods and tones. Focusing on your characters’ actions and occasionally skipping a dialogue tag for a line when it is clear who is talking can make your dialogue scenes more effective and engaging.

How do you attribute dialogue in your writing?