Writers are constantly being told to avoid using adverbs in our prose, and to delete any adverbs we find while editing/revising. We're told that adverbs are "weak writing" and the mark of an amateur and I'm sure that a lot of us follow this advice and use as few adverbs as we can, but I'm not so sure that a lot of us understand why using adverbs is weak writing, and what adverbs actually do to our prose to weaken it.
Although I am officially on a sabbatical from the Literary Lab, I have been reading D. H. Lawrence's novel "Women In Love" and I saw within Lawrence's pages what the problem with adverbs is and I wanted to talk about it so here I am, posting.
I could say any number of things about Lawrence's book (both good and bad), but the thing that struck me most last night when I was reading is that he larded his sentences with adverbs. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that every line of dialogue has a tag containing an adverb. Gudrun replies angrily to Gerald who responds haughtily while Ursula speaks tenuously to Rupert who declines to say anything, walking determinedly by her but at some distance, carefully and thoughtfully. Et cetera. And it goes on like that, honestly, for hundreds of pages. (There are also moments of sheer brilliance and beauty, which mostly balance Lawrence's clunky sentences.)
Anyway, all of this use of the adverb does two things which I think weaken the prose. First, it burdens the reader not only to decide what is meant by "haughtily" or "tenuously" or "determinedly" but also to keep track of these shifting emotional states that fly by and change often. Like most writers who lean heavily on adverbs, Lawrence uses a lot of them and after a while they begin to blur and lose all of their meaning. What is anyone feeling in the example I used above? I have no idea. Which leads to the second way in which adverbs can weaken prose: they are claims, not events.
What I mean by that is the same old "show, don't tell" you've been hearing since you first put pen to paper and wrote your first story. "Gudrun replies angrily" has no emotional weight for either the character or the reader. It doesn't move us and you might as well have not written it for all the good it does you as a story-teller. "I spent the day unhappily" is vague, formless and neutral. It ups your wordcount and does little else.
What adverbs too often do is replace action in stories. Anything that reduces the amount of meaningful dramatized action in a story is bad. Anything that reduces the amount of meaningful dramatized action in a story is bad. Yes, that bore repeating. Do not, therefore, tell us that Gudrun replies angrily. Show us her anger, with her words or her actions. Gudrun can let us know she's angry the same way she lets Gerald know she's angry. She probably does not say "I am speaking to you angrily." So don't you say that either, unless you intend some comic effect.
Sometimes we want to summarize, and adverbs do that for action. "He walked quickly" is shorthand for a description of someone walking in a rapid manner and if you're just hurrying the story along, that's fine. But the quick walking will not have any impact on the reader, so if this is an important moment and you want it to have impact, don't use weak writing. Use your strongest writing, and your strongest writing will be clear and direct and have distinct form and meaning. Strong writing is concrete and tactile, visual and immediate. Even a writer like Proust, who is characterized (mostly by people who've never read him, I think) as having written a lot of dreamy and pointless stuff, used very memorable and concrete images whenever people were acting, and he showed character emotions in a direct way (a man doesn't just lecture his friend "angrily," for example, but instead beats a tophat to bits in a fit).
So anyway, that's why adverbs are weak writing and why you should avoid them most of the time. The fact that D.H. Lawrence wrote some classics of the English language and his prose was clunky and choked with adverbs is not an excuse for your prose to be equally clunky unless you also have Lawrence's particular gifts to balance that clunkiness. I am looking for a closing joke that uses an adverb, but I've got nothing, sadly.
And I am still on sabbatical (because life is very busy right now) and may not have time at all to read/respond to comments. Have a lovely day anyway.