Adverbs and Mood Ring Robots

I recently re-watched Dead Poets Society. As always, it was tragic yet uplifting, unique yet cliche. I watched the credits roll by, thinking about the dangers of oppressive systems and the devaluation of art, mulling over the impact of literature and those who teach it.

I also found myself thinking about adverbs. There’s a line in the film, spoken by the English teacher John Keating, “A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. And don’t use very sad. Use… morose!” He’s right, of course. Saying someone is exhausted is far more evocative than saying they’re very tired. Not only that, but it’s a syntactically tighter description. So why are adverbs so frequently banned when they can save you loads of lengthy description? I remember learning to avoid them in my creative writing classes—professors told me that they’re lazy—but what about them is lazier than describing someone as exhausted?

man in white shirt using macbook pro

Let’s say you’re trying to describe a student during finals week. You could tell me they’re exhausted. That’s succinct, accurate, and yet it’s not as immersive as saying they are, for example, drowning in the waters of a deep and endless night where sleep evades their every move and a single moment stretches on and on towards an endless horizon of rusty minute hands. Is one worse than the other?

The truth is, adverbs aren’t an unequivocal poison to good writing. The trouble arises from—and here’s the plot twist that you wanted to be interesting but instead is a poor usage of deus ex machina—showing versus telling.

One thing you can do is replace the adverb with specific actions or movements. If you want your reader to know that Jemima was walking slowly, you could just as easily say that Jemima dragged her feet. If Joaquin giggles nervously, he might as well giggle and try to take a sip from his drink, but end up spilling it down his shirt. Like “very tired” versus “exhausted,” the second brings vibrancy to the scene.

But maybe you are correctly thinking that you can’t do that every single time. That’s okay, because there are plenty of other options. Similes can be great for specific description: Jemima walked like she had boulders glued to her feet. Joaquin giggled like he had just told a bad joke in front of his crush. Similes are useful if you want to evoke a niche emotion that the reader is familiar with, but perhaps has not thought of in those terms before.

You can also use dialogue to convey these sentiments:

“Jemima, keep up!” Jimothy shouted from the opposite side of the intersection.  

“Joaquin, man, relax. You’re going to ace this interview.”

Now, I’m going to go ahead and put a warning tag on this method, because while you shouldn’t be afraid to use your surrounding characters to tell the audience what’s going on, you also don’t want to go crazy with it. There’s nothing more annoying than a character who is there for the sole purpose of telling the reader information that the author wants you to know but can’t figure out how to tell you, often because the main character doesn’t know or wouldn’t express the sentiment out loud.

Joaquin being told that he looks nervous works well once or twice, but imagine he’s being followed around by someone who’s constantly shouting, “Joaquin, you look tired!” “You seem upset!” “You are elated due to the fact that you just conquered your mental block stemming from a hinted-at childhood trauma that was keeping you from using your pottery-making super powers!” Unless Joaquin has a trusty little robot friend whose main function is to act as a high-tech mood ring—which, now that I’m writing it, sounds dope—then that dialogue would be ridiculous.

Anyways, there are two important things I’m trying to say here: 1) Joaquin the pottery superhero and his mood ring robot are the most interesting duo I’ve ever come up with and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from stealing them. And 2) Most of the time adverbs are bad, but sometimes their simplicity is just the thing you need. As John Keating said, “Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things… just don’t let your poems be ordinary.” Writing is all about knowing every tool you have at your disposal and learning to choose the one that will help bring the most clarity to your work.

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