Adverbs: The death of good fiction writing

Adverbs: The death of good fiction writing

‘My wife is having a baby,’ he said. ‘I must go.’

He was urgently eating his dinner so he could be excused.

— —

See the problem with the above text? The adverb gives away too much information. It tells you ‘how’ the character is eating his dinner. But having read the dialogue that comes first, it’s safe for the reader to assume the man would eat his dinner with urgency without the writer needing to tell you so. I mean, his wife is having a baby.

Adverbs are the death of good writing. The best books are those that leave a different impression on each reader, that let the reader interpret the work how they see fit.

Adverbs remove that interpretation. Adverbs show your hand to the reader rather than build curiosity and individual thought. They’re ugly, superfluous and unenjoyable to look at on the page.

Creative destruction

Heavy subheading, I know. But I want to drive home the idea that adverbs destroy creativity.

If I told you my wife had died (I’m unmarried, don’t worry), I wouldn’t need to explain how I felt.

You should understand how I feel in this situation just from the way I act and the things I might say.

I might throw a watermelon at a freezer door while doing the shopping. I wouldn’t need to explain to you that I was angry at that time, and that I ‘wholeheartedly’ threw the watermelon. The action paired with the events behind it would explain enough how the watermelon was thrown.

And as a reader, the throwing of the watermelon would be up to you to decide. Maybe I threw it without anger but sadness in me. In which case, I might throw it softer. But the feeling of throwing the watermelon is still the same. I am still mourning the loss of my wife.

How to spot an adverb

Here’s the definition:

A word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree.

‘Modifies’ is the key word here. Adverbs change how an adjective or verb is interpreted.

Many adverbs will end in ‘ly’. For example:

  • Financially

  • Willfully

  • Abruptly

  • Endlessly

  • Firmly

  • Delightfully

  • Quickly

  • Lightly

  • Eternally

  • Delicately

  • Wearily

  • Sorrowfully

  • Beautifully

  • Truthfully

Most of these words are descriptors. They don’t give you the action that’s occurring (the verb), but instead explain how the verb is delivered.

‘She quickly ran up the hill.’

‘The house was spotlessly clean.’

‘She smiled cheerfully.’

Anyone running up a hill will be doing it quickly, else why not walk up it? A house is (more often than not) obviously spotless when it’s clean. A person is obviously cheerful when they smile.

Don’t use adverbs

Please, don’t use adverbs. Let your readers make up their own minds about how your story is acted out, don’t give them the stage directions.

Interpretation is the key to curiosity, and curiosity is the hook that keeps people reading.