How Bad Are Adverbs Really?
The advice that writers should never use adverbs gets thrown around a lot. Every couple of days I see a post about this so-called “rule” on /r/writing, and the responses are always the same: “But I like adverbs!” Adverbs aren’t inherently bad, but they can make for weak and uninteresting writing. In this post, I’m going to talk specifically about adverbs as they pertain to describing emotions.
Adverb Usage as Telling
The biggest problem with using adverbs to describe emotions is that it’s a form of telling. The show versus tell debate is also pretty hot on /r/writing, but few successful writers would deny that showing creates more compelling writing.
Adverbs are quintessentially telling. Here’s what I mean:
“I have a headache!” Jane said angrily.
The adverb angrily tells the reader how Jane feels. Yes, the adverb is economical and concise, but it’s boring. It evokes little emotion and gives the reader nothing to relate to.
Fewer Adverbs = More Showing
A quick and easy to way improve how much you show emotion is by using more descriptive words and describing the emotion with an action or body language. Here’s how I could cut the adverb from the above example and get across the emotion in a more compelling way:
“I have a headache!” Jane shouted as she slammed her fist on the table.
I’ve done two things here. First, I replaced the verb (said) and accompanying adverb (angrily) with a more descriptive word (shouted). That’s a good start. I could leave it at that, but I really want to emphasize that Jane’s angry. Therefore, I turn to body language. What do people do when they’re mad? I have a tendency to hit things. Maybe Jane does to.
Don’t underestimate the value of body language. A good proportion of communication is nonverbal, and human beings have evolved to be acutely aware of changes in body language (likely as a defense mechanism).
The key here is to trust your reader. I think authors rely on adverbs because they don’t trust their readers to feel the right emotion or interpret a description in the right way. Readers are actually quite perceptive to changes in body language, because 250,000 years of hominid evolution has made us so. They’ve likely observed someone act out emotions in a similar way (or have done so themselves), and thus they’ll understand what you’re implying.
Writing “rules” aren’t really rules. They’re guidelines that help improve your prose. Thus, there are always exceptions, and there will always be places where adverbs need to come into play. Still, I like to treat the no adverb “rule” seriously. If I approach my writing or editing with the mindset that I’m not going to allow adverbs to convey emotion, I’m forced to show these emotions. This gives me a framework from which to operate as a writer or editor.
If you’re interested in this concept of using “rules” to give your writing direction, I strongly recommend checking out this YouTube video by Shaelin Bishop. While you’re there, check out the rest of her stuff, too. You won’t be disapointed.
In summary, try to avoid using adverbs to describe emotions. Work on cutting them out in favor of more descriptive verbs. Also consider turning to body language to show how your characters feel. Body language is a powerful tool because we all intuitively understand it. Using it in place of adverbs will improve your writing immensely.