How Bad Are Adverbs, Really?

Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adverbs. I have heard this advice from a hundred sources a hundred times. It seems to be the one thing that style guides and literary critics can all agree on. Adverbs bad. But how useful is this advice? Is there a way that, actually, adverbs good? 

An adverb often serves to add specificity to an action. They also can convey emotion, add punch to a sentence, heighten tension and explain setting. They are an all purpose grammar tool. So why the hate?

In my own experience, whenever someone has suggested that I remove an adverb from my writing it is because I am using that adverb as a crutch. What I mean by this is that I am using the adverb to convey the information by expressly telling the reader. In reality, I should be conveying this information through other means. More specific language and detailed descriptions can often serve to convey the same information as an adverb in a more artful way. 

Everyone knows the classic example of how the sentence “he sprinted” is better than the sentence, “he ran quickly.” Why use lot words when few words do trick? Sprinted is a better phrase than ran quickly. But there are more complex examples. 

“The sun shone brilliantly across the grasses gently swaying in the wind.” A fairly stock description of a field. The problem with the adverbs here is not that they are bad sentences, but that they are always used to convey this image. Adverbs are bread and butter of cliche descriptions. A better sentence might read, “The grass dipped and wove in the breeze, each kernel of wheat reflecting the morning sun.” By forcing myself to avoid adverbs, I had to invent a more original way to describe the scene. 

Adverbs are also exceedingly dangerous when they are used as dialogue tags. From personal experience I know that nothing I have written has ticked a creative writing teacher off more than, “shouted loudly.” Oftentimes, an adverb modifying a tag is simply a sign of ameature writing. Even if the phrase is fairly solid, such as “said softly” which is a personal favorite of mine, it still comes off as ameature. I’ve found that using adverbs in this way is best done sparingly; often it can have good effects, but that effect is negated by frequent use. 

But I also believe that adverbs can be useful, if used well. Sometimes adverbs fit well with a more flowery style of writing, writing that relishes long sentences and complex structure. Sometimes an adverb is just exactly what’s needed to describe something as well. To use an example of a sentence I wrote recently: “she sits down heavily in a chair.” I can’t find a perfect verb to encapsulate that sense of sitting down with an angry harumph, but “heavily” does the job pretty well, and it doesn’t get in the way. 

Adverbs are a danger. When I go back to edit my work, they are something I look for, because I know I have a penchant to rely on them. Replacing adverbs with stronger, more direct language is usually the right call. But the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. If you feel the call of the adverb, don’t just sprint for it. Run quickly.