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"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs," said Stephen King. He went on to explain that they should be used sparingly, not as a crutch to avoid writing a more descriptive sentence.

Sometimes, I find a much more colorful way to express myself when editing out an -ly word. Other times, I find myself avoiding them by transforming sentences in a straightforward manner, e.g.:

"The two silently admired Jupiter" => "The two admired Jupiter in silence."

", she said wryly" => ", she said with a wry grin."

Does this exercise improve my writing, or is it just as lazy as the original -ly adverb?

Any advice for when that rich description fails to materialize in my mind?

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    "Use adverbs sparingly." If you can't give the advice without breaking it, it's probably not great advice. – Nuclear Hoagie Nov 21 '16 at 13:55
  • I have a long way to go before I reach Stephen King's level :-) – Eric J. Nov 21 '16 at 18:04
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The difficulty with adverbs falls to the familiar saw about "show, don't tell": If the adverb is instructing the reader how to interpret the action, the implication is that the description itself is weak.

Consider:

  • "I'm ready to go," he said.
  • "I'm ready to go," he said mischievously.
  • "I'm ready to go," he said mournfully.

These three lines read very differently from each other, even though only the adverb is changed. And the reason they read differently from each other is not because they describe different things, but rather because the reader is explicitly told how to interpret each one of them.

The problem with relying on adverbs, then, is the problem of telling your readers how to feel rather than actually creating that emotion in them; the problem of telling your readers how a moment or a glance should be understood, rather than portraying that snippet in a way where they, themselves, would understand it.

At its worst, you can have the reader feel that he's being implored to think of the characters as being heroic and heinous and hilarious and horrific, without the text ever actually showing any of those things.


In this way, swapping she said wryly for she said with a wry grin is no substantial improvement; you're still simply cuing us how to understand the statement.

Here are some alternatives where the difference is much greater:

  • Change the text being spoken, so the wryness is self-evident and doesn't need to be brought additional attention to.
  • Bring the wry expression to life - instead of just saying that it's "wry", tell us that it's the same grin she makes when her baby soils itself, or that she's just barely keeping from cracking up. Something that makes the expression vivid and concrete.
  • Bring the situation to life - tell us what the use of wryness means to the speaker, or the viewpoint character. "It took me a split-second to realize she was joking"; "I know she didn't mean to sound mocking, but it grated on me anyway."

All that being said, though, "telling vs. showing" is a constant tradeoff, a balance, not something to always decide in the same way. In plenty of cases, using an adverb is a simple, effective way of communicating something. It's not wrong to sometimes use adverbs; what's wrong is to use them as a replacement for vivid descriptions (or in addition to better descriptions, in which case they're just unnecessary).

Here's a quick checklist you can use to consider any particular adverb use.

  • If I take the adverb out, does the line still work? If yes, it's unnecessary; cut it.
  • Can I rewrite the line so as to eliminate the need for the adverb? If yes, that's likely to be better, crisper. "Yell," instead of "say loudly"; say something actually wry, instead of saying a colorless line "wryly."
  • Does the adverb get across a clear image? Sometimes adverbs are an integral part of the language. "Walking briskly" has a very distinct feel to it, in a way that "walking," jogging," and "perambulating" don't, and also different than other things one might do "briskly." "Walking briskly" is kind of it's own thing. It's very reasonable to use adverbs this way -- the only concern is that such phrases are fairly likely to be cliches, so in that sense, they shouldn't be overused.
  • Is it important for me to describe this vividly? If yes, then this is a case where you want to show rather than tell; this is not the place for an adverb.
  • Have I been relying on adverbs a lot to get across tone and atmosphere? If so, that could be an issue with your writing style, and you might want to pay attention and see if you can improve in the next draft.
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Saying that you should use adverbs sparingly is silly. You should use adverbs, and every other part of speech, appropriately. If adverbs are less frequently appropriate that other parts of speech, then they will occur less frequently in good prose as a consequence. But this will not happen because of the writer consciously avoiding adverbs. It will happen because the writer has a good sense of style.

Removing adverbs will never turn a bad passage into a good passage. Write with the whole language at once, listen closely to the effect your words have, and edit out those words that do not add to the effect you are creating, regardless of what part of speech they belong to.

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    I never understood the aversion a lot of writers have against adverbs. I get that action verbs are good (e.g. scurried vs ran quickly). For some, they see an "-ly" adverb and they freak out. Adverbs are an essential part of speech, just like adjectives which doesn't seem to have quite the stigma. – iMerchant Nov 20 '16 at 23:06
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    And even then, "ran quickly" can be more appropriate than "scurried" in some cases. It is all about where you want to focus attention. Colorful words call attention to themselves. Plain words do not. The choice of plain or colorful words, therefore, is an instrument that you can use to direct the reader's attention to the thing you want them to focus on. If you want them to focus on the motion, say "scurried". If you just need to move the character to another spot but want the reader to focus elsewhere, say "ran quickly". – user16226 Nov 21 '16 at 14:12

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