The case for adverbs

Okay, so I understand that adverbs are a tool and are sometimes used as a quick, lazy way out. However, I did come across one example I didn’t entirely (see?) agree on:

He whispered words of love … my sweet, dear lover, my angel … he purred his contentment, his joy …

This, my dear readers, was posted by The Writer’s Digest. This page was advocating that this sentence added drama to the man whispering to his lover. The sentence originally read “he whispered to her lovingly”. Yes, it adds drama, but is that necessarily a good thing? Surely the writer is going off-track listing all the pet names for said lover? Whereas the original tells, short and sweet, that the couple are being intimate. Plus, calling your lover “my angel” isn’t exactly creative – we’ve heard this before. And what about him ‘purring’ his contentment? Cliched and hammy, much? What really takes the biscuit, though, is adding ‘his joy…’ on the end, to indicate his blissful, dreamy, perfect moment. This is fine if you want to write for Mills & Boon, but not for other publishers. Get on with the action and involve some dialogue! This is actually a bad case of description, where we get the character’s thoughts paraphrased rather the reader seeing for themselves what they are thinking. And yet, the writer of the article claims this sentence is ‘showing not telling’. Then, we go from too little “The house had an empty feeling to it, the air stale with undefined kitchen odors …” to far too much:

“The dark, dreary house had an empty, suspicious feel to it, the thick air stale and sour with undefined, scary kitchen odors” …Do all these adjectives add much at all? An empty house implies something strange and sinister, so do I need “suspicious”? Do I also need “dark, dreary”? An empty house might be these things as well, but I’m not unmindful that a sinister house may also be bright and sunlit

Oh for God’s sake! Reading blatantly obvious comments makes me want to weep sometimes. Any idiot can tell that this piece of prose is heavily peppered with adjectives, but clearly The Writer’s Digest doesn’t seem to realize that we aren’t stupid. Perhaps ‘desolate’ would be a more precise word than ’empty’ and ‘undefined’ could be ‘strange’ or ‘alien’. But let’s meet halfway, and see what that does:

“The house was desolate. The air was thick with sour odours coming from the kitchen.”

There. The revised sentence is not only shorter, but it’s very vivid and concise. We have the right amount of well-chosen adjectives; not only do we know where the odours are coming from, but we know that the mood in this house is eerie and unpleasant.

So what have we learned here?

  1. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the right adjective or verb
  2. Adverbs are spices; dump too much on, and everything is diluted


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