Unpopular opinion? I hate adverbs.
The girl I used to teach next to, back in the day, had a sign in her classroom that read: “Said is dead.” While I don’t disagree there are other ways to indicate someone is speaking, I think “said” gets the job done. To be honest, my biggest issue with the classroom poster was how it swarmed with adverbs and verbs she suggested students use to replace the no-no word.
I’m not trying to be a hater, but I am. If you’re using adverbs in your writing, it’s because you’re scared. Or you’re lazy. Sorry, dudes.
Need a reason to avoid adverbs? I’ll give you three.
Redundant adverbs are the easiest to cut and most wide-spread in all writing genres. The point of an adverb is to modify the verb or noun, to detail it further, yet these nasty barnacles latch onto a part of speech and repeat whatever has already been said. Copy cats. In terms of clean writing, we’re talking about unnecessary use of language.
Let’s chop it like it’s hot. (It’s example time).
She frowned unhappily.
I had no idea people who frowned were unhappy, did you? I’m being sass-squared, but do you see what I’m saying? “She frowned” works fine on its own.
She spied secretively.
Most spies are secretive. Using “spied” as a verb implies as much without the addition.
The easy solution is to leave out the adverb. It’s not modifying in either of these cases, only repeating what you’ve already said. Save your words for where they’re useful.
They don’t add intensity.
Not only was “Truly, madly, deeply” a terrible 90s hit, the song title is also the perfect example of three adverbs intended as intensifiers. He loved her truly. She fought madly. He grabbed her thin neck and pulled her close, kissing her deeply and without abandon. You could go back to rule one on some of these, but the real question you should ask yourself is: Are you adding an adverb to avoid failing at description? Is it an easy out?
Some others to avoid: extremely, obviously, definitely, greatly, very and completely.
Said isn’t dead.
Modifying “said” in dialogue breaks my eyes. Why?
Exchanges should focus on the substance, not on how it was said. After all, the easiest way to avoid being told you’re telling a story and not showing it is by paying attention to every word you use. Instead of adding additional ones for fear you didn’t hit the mark. If the dialogue becomes less important than how it’s being said, it’s probably useless to the story.
Example: “I told you you’d spoil your dinner if you ate that an hour ago, brat,” his mother said angrily.
“Angrily” is unnecessary in the context of the dialogue and distracts from the interaction. This one is debated as often as elephants and donkeys (Is the election over yet?). There are other writers who disagree and argue about teaching creativity and refusing to limit dialogue to one exit clause. Still, I come back to simplicity. If the character needs to say something, let them say it and leave well enough alone.
I realize my reasons might be unpopular and I’m not implying this is the end-all-be-all of writing, but I do challenge each of you to think about how often you’re using adverbs in your writing and – at the very least – consider making revisions to your own work to see how minimizing usage might actually strengthen your story.
Did this fire you up? Why? Perspective is such a fun piece of chatting; let’s have the adverb conversation in the comments below.
Lindsay Fischer is a trauma-tested author who writes about her own experiences to help others feel less alone. A former English teacher and dance coach, a domestic violence survivor, and – now – a seemingly infertile Myrtle, she refuses to be silent about the things that change our lives. For her, those issues are domestic violence and infertility.
Lindsay Fischer graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, English. Life got messy when she fell in love with a man who would become her abuser, and it pulled her from the classroom. After three years of trauma therapy, she saw an opportunity to use her voice against injustices and shame-filled adversity, blogging under the pseudonym Sarafina Bianco since 2009. She revealed her real identity in 2015 when her memoir, The House on Sunset, was re-released.
She currently lives with her husband and three dogs in St. Louis, Missouri.