Orwell Hates Our Adverbs


By Mark Dooley


Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.

— Anton Chekhov

For centuries, experts have instructed writers to make war on adverbs. We accepted it as a truism and forgot the underlying battle for clarity. We overlook how easy it is to repeat the meaning of the verb in our adverbs. In the heat of writing, we miss that adverbs always tell while we strive to show our characters’ actions. We ask readers to create the details of scenes by giving them an adverb instead of showing them the fruits of our imagination. In our rush to share our work, we ignore the reduction of our arsenal of verbs. Today, I take up the banner of clarity opposing the confusion caused by the overuse of adverbs.       

Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well.

— David Mitchell

Authors replace intensity in their ideas with mere repetition. An adverb whose meaning matches the verb does not add depth to a sentence. It creates clutter. When we write “she smiled happily”, our readers frown. “Caresses softly” adds no value to the simple “caresses”. Additional context lends substance to a verb like a gem placed in a setting; “He leans close, his clothes rustling over his flesh, and caresses my arm.” Choosing a different verb defines an act in ways the adverb cannot, “He snuggles” for playful affection or “he fondles” for a more romantic mood.

You may find this a trivial complaint, but every layer of indirection stands between a story and a reader. As these obfuscations reproduce, like weeds in a garden, we erode our ability to convey our meaning to the reader. In the end, we wind up with inanities such as “zoomed speedily”. Lest you think I made that up, a Google search shows it appears in several published works.

Every adjective and adverb is worth five cents. Every verb is worth fifty.

  — Mary Oliver

Clear writing shows characters in a scene to evoke emotions in our readers. Ineffective writing tells our audience how to feel. To write “the beach was so lovely” is to command our audience to sense loveliness. If we can show a character enjoying a family picnic on a beach, we allow an empathy to grow between readers and our characters. We can tell our readers “she stomped away angrily” or we can show them anger by cues: her tone grows cold, she reddens, her throat tightens, or her voice rises.

Adverbs require the reader to create an emotional depth for our writing. How hollow the skeletal paint-by-numbers construction of “she said seductively” compared to the intimate pleasure of “‘ti amo,’ she breathed, tickling the hairs on the nape of my neck.” We owe our readers an empathy with our characters but should not rely on them to do it themselves.

Fainthearted writers fall back on a set of adverbs they believe intensify ideas in their text: very, extremely, truly, so, and really among others. Readers regard these as the language of the used car salesman and search for the scam hidden in the text.

In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

— George Orwell, 1984

At last, we arrive at Mr. Orwell and the source of our title. The destruction of language serves as a precondition of the destruction of a society. Authors believe that using a multitude of adverbs expands our vocabulary and our meaning, but the opposite is true. Overuse of adverbs shrinks our list of productive verbs to near extinction. “She walked furtively”, “She walked stealthily”, “She walked covertly” lead us to the endpoint illustrated by Newspeak in 1984, “She walked doubleplus hidden”. This proliferation of adverbs reduces human movement to a single verb.

This willful reduction of vocabulary insults our readers. When we use adverbs to distinguish the method of walking, running, loving, or, most repetitious, saying, we tell our readers that we assume they cannot understand an expanded vocabulary. This is not an excuse to raid the thesaurus and pluck “he perambulated” from its depths. Rather, it is a call to find verbs that express unique qualities of our characters’ action. 

I don’t know if it’s because older women are more confident, or just that we don’t care anymore. But that pared-down approach is the same with the sentences I write; I take out adjectives and adverbs.

— Tracy Chevalier

We return to the idea of excision, to remove words we struggled to write. I did not say this would be easy. Revision is the heart of clear writing. We ask critique partners to report where complexities lead our readers astray, descriptions overwhelm our story, and obscurities sow confusion. I’m asking you to go beyond this list and include where repetition of meaning bores your reader, adverbs tell instead of show, an adverb forced your reader to fill a scene with emotion, and adverbs substitute for illustrative verbs.

Today, I ask you to lift the banner of clarity, choose a pungent verb, and defeat the shortcomings in our writing caused by adverbs.   


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