Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Adverbs are Generally Bad (but Sometimes Good)

Adverbs to writers are like salt to cooks.  If you put in too little, it will come out bland, but if you put in too much, it will be overbearing.

You’ve probably gotten the idea that adverb use is bad, evil or a little like a fungus growing between your toes.  This seems to be an often noted lesson for writers.  But the fact is, adverbs don’t kill stories.  People kill stories.

One might say, if adverbs can make my story look bad, I’d rather just leave them out entirely.  But that’s like saying, too much salt can make the food too salty, so I’d rather just leave out the salt.  It is a useful tool that can actually help your product, if only you use it correctly.

So why are adverbs bad?  Well, there are several occasions which brought up the whole problem in the first place.

The number one reason for this is what they call Swifties.  I think it’s named after a writer named Swift who used them a lot.
A Swifty, for those who don’t know, is a dialogue tag modifier.  E.g. “Put that down,” John said angrily.  You are essentially telling your readers what you should be showing them.  So basically, this is the same deal as the show/tell thing.  Some occasions demand telling, but most do not.  A reason for using a Swifty can be this:  If your speaker’s words would make it hard for a reader to figure out what would be obvious if he was hearing it.  E.g. “I hate you,” he said happily.  However, a Swifty should be a last resort.  Try to restructure the words or set the mood so that the happily will be apparent without you saying it.

Another occurrence is the use of weak verbs along with adverbs.  For example, John walked quickly to the scene of the crime.  By replacing ‘walked quickly’ with ‘hurried’, you say exactly the same thing, only with fewer words.  Never say something in two words if you can say it in one.  Weak verbs that need to be modified are sort of like passive voice.  It’s easy to lose clarity, focus and interest by using them too much.  There is a place for them, but if you can help it, don’t put them in.

Adverbs can add clarity to a sentence that would otherwise be difficult to understand, but people often over explain.  Readers are, in general, smarter than one thinks and can usually fill in the gaps.  When you are certain that it needs to be there, you can joyfully put it in.

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