Nearly every teacher of writing, especially creative writing, will tell students to avoid adverbs. It goes along with the standard advice to show, not tell.
Here’s a bit of dialog from Tom Swift and His Airship (1910), which illustrates adverbs in bad writing:
“Oh, I’m not a professor,” he said quickly. “I’m a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He’s smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?”
“No professor?” cried Miss Perkman indignantly. “Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called someone professor.”
The supposed author, Victor Appleton, was an assembly of hack writers who went to great lengths to avoid the simple word “said” in the dialog. So they sprinkled the dialog with too many adverbs, often ending in -ly.
My 8th-grade English teacher marked down papers for using “said.” So we usually wrote someone “stated” something instead. Just as dull, but it saved us from her red ink. “Appleton’s” English teachers must have also disapproved of “said” but allowed it when modified. At least all those adverbs sort of broke up the sameness.
A kind of pun called a Tom Swifty makes fun of the style by adding puns. For example, “If you want me, I’ll be in the attic,” Tom said loftily. Or, “I forgot what I came to the store to get,” Tom said listlessly.
Or, as I could have written my headline, “Don’t overuse adverbs,” Tom said proverbially.
The pun doesn’t have to end with -ly: “I love hot dogs,” said Tom, with relish. It didn’t even have to use “said”: “I have to grade these papers all over again,” Tom remarked.
Why writing teachers disapprove of adverbs
What writing teacher doesn’t advise to show, not tell? Suppose some character “screams angrily.” The sentence doesn’t show much, does it? In fiction, anyway, the writer can more effectively paint the scene by describing a character’s building anger in a situation. Then, when she screams, readers know it’s from anger and not fright. No adverb needed.
“Angrily” in that case, adds an unnecessary word, a mere filler. It’s kind of like a vocalized pause in speech: “The she, um, screamed.”
The internet age has transformed how people read. Therefore, it has changed the way writing teachers describe good writing. Instead of teaching how to write long sentences and long paragraphs, nowadays, it seems everyone insists on short sentences, short paragraphs, and even short words.
Some expert advice
But advice to cut out unnecessary words? More than two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson noted, ” The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
The Elements of Style (written by William Strunk in 1918 and expanded by E.B. White in 1959) sternly advises:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
And a common way to write unnecessary words? Use too many adverbs. Mark Twain advised, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
And an often-quoted sentiment by Steven King,
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.
Don’t you just love the way he deliberately used three adverbs, and to great effect? He objects not to adverbs as such, but to the Tom Swift effect of pouring them on flabby verbs without considering how to use better verbs and nouns for vigorous, lively writing.
Is it really desirable to avoid adverbs? Write, then edit what you wrote
But I just used three adverbs, didn’t I? I could have written seldom instead of rarely, but it’s still an adverb. Read that paragraph omitting the adverbs. The first sentence becomes too general. The second takes on the opposite meaning. It might be possible to express the same thought without adverbs. But as it stands, I’ve put them to useful work.
Compare the overuse of adverbs to driving to a familiar location on an expressway. It’s fast and easy, but you don’t see much along the way.
Trying to edit excess adverbs out is more like driving to an unfamiliar location on city streets or country roads. You’re thinking less about your destination than how to get there without getting lost. Or maybe it’s more like walking.
In either case, you can notice more. Perhaps you can notice a verb that expresses the point more vividly or more clearly. Ax the adverb and replace the verb.
Or perhaps you can notice that you’ve used a lame cliché. How about someone so angry he literally exploded! In that case, someone has a mess to clean up! But the mess is not wiping blood and guts off the walls. It’s cutting out an unnecessary and misused adverb that destroys a metaphor.
So as you edit your prose, examine every adverb. Don’t mindlessly eliminate it. Give it a chance to prove it belongs. And it might.
If you can’t improve on a sentence that has an adverb, then you need that adverb in that sentence. But if a better way to express your thought comes to mind as you question an adverb, go with it.