Claudia Osmond ~ Reader, Writer, and Ruminator

The Problem with Adverbs

In writing on January 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Quite frankly, the problem with adverbs is that they make me want to throw a perfectly good book across the room.

I was reading a book not too long ago, a good one in terms of concept and plot development, but the overuse of adverbs was enough to make me want to call the editor and ask why? Why, oh why would s/he let these little parasites cling to the prose and suck the life out of the story?

At best, adverbs can be amusing: Libby sprang gymnasitcally from branch to branch as if she were a squirrel.*

At worst, they can be downright annoying:

“We made it!” Cindy panted breathlessly.

“Everything they told us about the Land of the Lost is true!” Joe said, looking around eagerly. He absentmindedly leaned his shoulder on a skull that protruded menacingly from the wall of the cave.

“Let’s explore this place,” Cindy said enthusiastically, grabbing Joe by the hand and pulling him strongly.

“Let go of me, immediately,” he said sternly. “I want to  quickly take a picture first.*

Do you feel like throwing your computer across the room? Yeah, I just broke out in hives while writing that. But, no joke, I’ve read passages that sounded just like that. Maybe you have, too.

So what’s the deal? 

Gasp! Maybe I’m to blame. I taught 3rd grade for many years and encouraged, yea even praised my little learners when they used abverbs in their writing. “We will now expand our vocabulary and learn about adverbs,” I’d say. “They make your story so interesting and exciting!”  “Let’s insert an adverb here to describe how Sally climbed up the tree.”

Woe is me. I’ve had a hand in contaminating the next generation of writers.

But what I’d like to know is why are there so many books out there, written by adults who were not taught by me, adults who know to show rather than tell, that have this kind of writing in them? It’s true that our vocabulary has expanded even more since 3rd grade, right?

Well, you could argue they’re not “good” books, that they’ll never sell well. But some of them do! I can’t tell you how many NYT Bestsellers I’ve read that have this kind of writing. Seriously, truly, really, and absolutely! No word of a horrendously horrible lie!

Now, I’m not pretending to be the one to say how books should and shouldn’t be written. But I think for the most part, writers and readers alike can agree on this: death to adverbs! Cut them from your work, drop them into the abyss, and let them scream.

Like Stephen King says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

What say ye?

*I made these up on the spot. They are not actual examples taken from books. Any similarity to books either living or dead is purely coincidental and not intended by the author. (Just so you explicitly and unequivocally know)

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by elisa nader, Claudia Osmond. Claudia Osmond said: The Problem with Adverbs: […]

  2. Ha, ha. Loved your disclaimer at the bottom.

    I don’t have any answers. I think the occasional use of an adverb can be fine; they can brighten up prose, if used well. But not when used in the way you have illustrated here.

    As for why best-sellers are so often riddled with them: maybe because best-sellers are usually commercial and not literary, so they’re just more plot-focused? Maybe it’s just a sign of what the general readership really cares about? Top shows are shows like Jersey Shore. I don’t like it, but I can’t make the world be something that it’s not.

    I think it’s important to note that the books with the awards are usually not the books that are sitting in the “top ten” section of the store. Maybe writing a best-selling book is a separate goal from writing an award-winning book.

    • Hmmm … interesting thoughts, Ishta. And, yes, I do agree that the occasional adverb is fine. It’s just when you can count a couple or more per page (some even repeats) that, imo, they become stumbling blocks to the story. And when I get tripped up, I leave the story and say to myself, “Now how could they have said that without using that adverb?” Which isn’t the point. The story is the point. So then I get annoyed that I’ve been pulled from the story because of a stupid little adverb. Call it a hang-up … 🙂

  3. Re: getting annoyed about being pulled out of the story by unnecessary adverbs, YES! I feel that way, too. It drives me nuts when I read something and my brain just switches from enjoyment mode into critique mode, because there have been such glaring issues as overuse of adverbs. I always end up with mixed feelings about those books. BUT: it wasn’t until I started writing that I began the process of thinking about the mechanics of storytelling, and I didn’t study creative writing formally until I took a class last fall. I think the majority of people have probably never thought about the craft of writing, and things like adverbs jump off the page so much more often when you’ve been trained to look for them. But most readers haven’t been; they’re more concerned with plot and character.

    Also, if we’re talking YA or MG, people like us aren’t the intended audience. Those books are geared towards a much younger, much less seasoned crowd. 3rd graders are taught to use adverbs in their writing. Kids who are occasional but not voracious readers are taught that “bad” writing is actually good. I cringe now at some of the stuff I devoured as a kid, because the characters and storylines were interesting and my parents and I just didn’t know any better.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t think we should bother with writing strong manuscripts with both solid plots and carefully crafted language. I do! I think a well-written book with an interesting, well-paced plot and compelling characters can do very well – possibly even extraordinarily well, as we see in the Harry Potter series. But if we’re talking mega-blockbusting sales numbers like Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, I think that unfortunately, an exciting or compelling plot can (but doesn’t always) trump all else.

    But, yes, I basically agree with you. Death to clunky adverbs!

  4. I blundered into your conversation while using my phone to help my wife w/ a crossword puzzle. “What adverb do English teachers disdain?” From the posts here, I’d say writing teachers disdain all of them. She needs a four letter word.
    If you can handle military SF you might look @ John
    Ringo. There couldn’t be room in his books for many the st

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