What’s Everyone Got Against Adverbs?

15 Dreaded Adverbs, According to the Hemingway App

16 Dreaded Adverbs, According to the Hemingway Editor


Adverbs are terribly out of favor, and I frankly cannot understand why. I personally love them.

Granted, they’re the first words to go on Twitter, where description is not rewarded. And the who, what, why, when, where, how format of hard news doesn’t typically allow for adverbs, nor adjectives either, for that matter. But in all other prose, I find adverbs to be the quintessence of amplified description, offering me an added twist to the meaning of a verb or phrase.

Verbs can have many meanings, after all, and the adverb serves as clarification for the precise reader. It’s that little extra tidbit of information that draws more me precisely into a story.

The Hemingway App has become popular with writers who seek to weed out all such offending adverbs. When you first arrive at the free desktop Hemingway Editor [HERE], you’ll be told to copy and paste something you’re working on, or to compose something new, because the “Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.” I’m all for bold, clear writing; I’m just not against describing, too, but the site advises you otherwise:

Adverbs are helpfully shown in blue. Get rid of them and pick verbs with force instead. (Really??) Tweet:

Some have taken issue with the advice to get rid of adverbs. Notably, one was a expert literary magazine, The New Yorker, in an article HERE that analyzed Ernest Hemingway’s own use of adverbs on his own writing. He didn’t manage to eliminate them, not by a long shot. We can assume, therefore, that he intended to use adverbs, either for emphasis or clarity.

Despite Stephen King’s succinct contention “the adverb is not your friend,” it does have its defenders. Maddie Crum, books editor at the Huffington Post, bemoaned the “smear campaign against them,” reminding writers that adverbs tell us more about verbs, and when they’re used effectively, they’re pretty damned effective. (She makes a great case for using adverbs to “enhance writing, rather than detract from it;” read her entire article HERE.)

Elmore Leonard confessed, “Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.” (Of course he did.)

We’re in a period where we admire writers whose prose is to the point; hence, the reverence for the likes of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard (whose fourth rule of writing is “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said”). When Leonard penned those rules in his New York Times essay for ‘Writers on Writing’ in 2001 [HERE], he lumped his 10 rules into a category of writing faux pas inspired by John Steinbeck’s term, hooptedoodle (what a great word, isn’t it? Totally made up.). And then Elmore Leonard confessed, “Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.”

That’s just it. As far as adverbs go, and descriptive writing in general, I admire the way a good writer puts her words together. The lusher the description is, the better; the visual imagery I imagine from reading those lush words is what keeps me reading on. And when adverbs add to the texture of the writing, I’m not likely to count them so much as I’m likely to gain a better understanding of the character.

Now, if you really want to get your literary panties in a grammar wad, take a look at Dictionary.com’s Six Words That Can Ruin Your Sentence, HERE. (Honestly, I actually never basically like using such literally ruinous words, personally, that is. Do you?) 

Where do you stand on the evils of adverbs? Please use the Comments to explain why.

Using the Hemingway Editor to detect the dreaded adverbs, my count for this piece is 16. If you see one that didn’t thrill the pants off you when you read it, please let me know in the Comments. Find more on the art of writing creatively HERE.Want to learn more about my upcoming novel? Subscribe HERE


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22 replies

  1. I agree that there’s an inordinate amount of adverb-bashing in the writer’s world of late. The protesters claim that if you’re using an adverb, you haven’t hunted hard enough for the correct verb. But there’s a reason why adverbs were invented – because not every possible nuance of action can be expressed by currently existing verbs. I do agree that adverbs can interrupt the flow of a sentence if used improperly, but they can also improve rhythm if used well. I know I often base my word choices on the number of syllables in a phrase or sentence, and sometimes only adverbs, with their smooth and easy-to-speak endings, can provide the sought-after structure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love this insight about improving the rhythm, Lori, thank you for sharing it. Interesting to know how another author approaches the flow of a sentence, using syllables and adverbs for smooth endings . . . never thought of them that way. One more point in favor of adverbs: easy-to-speak endings!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I belong to a local writer’s group that meets monthly and the main people there (other than myself) also dispense the “get rid of adverbs” advice and claim that ALL editors everywhere (when editing a piece that you have submitted to them) go through and eliminate all the “ly” words. I understand this is the current vogue, but I believe that adverbs have their time and place and proper usage, Can they be overdone and used too often? Of course. But should a good writer always eliminate them entirely from a piece? Not by a long shot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve made a great point about universal advice writers share. I tend to follow the notion of take what you like and leave the rest. I’m not even persuaded to kill all the adverbs, because when reading popular and well-regarded books, they are in evidence. Appreciate your feedback!

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  2. I tend to think this is the typical overreaction to some bad habits that developed in writing. The tendency to add words to bulk up a story, mostly adjectives and adverbs. “It was a dark and stormy night… etc…” I think it is valid to think that you should strive to minimize extraneous words, but often, as you have said, it is critical to the precise meaning of the phrase to have the adverb (or adjective). And, as I like to say, isn’t the purpose of language to communicate? If we trim it down to the point that though we may understand what we meant, the reader does not, then we have not communicated anything and we have failed at our most basic of tasks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the purpose of language is surely to communicate, well said, Sarah. You’re spot on about this being an overreaction to bad writing. The sad truth of it is this: you cannot make enough grammar rules to turn someone into a gifted writer if she’s not naturally a gifted writer. That said, knowing the rules helps us break them, doesn’t it? Appreciate your visit and your insights. Thanks.

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  3. There’s an interesting conflict with one of the Hemingway highlights above. I happen to hate “I personally”, not because it is an adverb but almost a tautology. What is the alternative? “I impersonally”? I doubt it! All the other cases in support of adverbs are fine, as there are variables.
    I strongly submit case. No, to hell with it! I emphatically submit my case 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent point about one of my intentionally inserted adverbs; I’m personally never in favor of using personally, since I personally find it to be redundant and repetitious. Impersonally, however, I truly appreciate your emphatic feedback! (Think that gets a 5 on the Adverb Overuse Scale)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Use in moderation and omit needless words. I do like Leonard’s advice, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Thanks for this post and the invaluable links, Jann. It’s one I will keep on file!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Omitting needless words is in the eye of the beholder, though, isn’t it, Greg? One woman’s needless is another man’s need. Therein lies the rub. As for sounding like writing, that’s another “rule” that sounds good, in theory, but there are many times I really enjoy a good read that sounds like writing, for the sheer loveliness of the writing. It’s a conundrum, I’ll grant that. Thanks for taking the time to comment and making me ponder thus further . . .

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  5. Even Uncle Stevie himself can’t eliminate all his adverbs (despite his advice to “kill your darlings”), but I would still—as a reader—recommend using them sparingly, especially when describing the verb “said.” I don’t hate adverbs, but they almost always fall in the “needless words” category for me. However, I also enjoy lush descriptions, so it’s a tough rule to pin down. It’s sort of like that obscenity ruling: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Similarly (ha), it’s difficult for me to define when exactly I do and don’t like adverbs, but I know extraneous adverbs when I see them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly so, Bridget. The comparison to obscenity is perfect: what pleases some, others find displeasing. I’m so glad you pointed this out; perhaps the takeaway is that you need to do a lot of writing, and a lot of reading, to get the hang of the proper (mis)use of adverbs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. I also think it’s always going to be subjective no matter how much you read or how much you write, but only through doing a lot of both will you find your own voice and preferences on the subject.

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  6. I’m not strongly opposed to adverbs although some writers use them when a stronger verb would make the point more succinctly. You have to take into context the writer’s style – I’m currently editing an author who loves to use metaphors instead of adverbs – sometimes it works and sometimes not – but certainly it wouldn’t be something I’d suggest everyone try! Great post – so happy to have stumble upon your blog!

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  7. I don’t know if people ever made that link but in the word adverb, there’s “ad” and an “ad” is a moment spent filling precious airtime on a dying media called television. As a result, an adverb is a word used to fill pages with not-so-interesting wording, with air, in a sense. I respect those who use adverbs (I do such a thing to emphasize a sentence) but like all things in life, moderation is the key.

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  8. I’m a huge Hemingway fan, and always thought I was, or at least I tried, to emulate him in my first novel. I also read many of these articles you refer to about avoiding adverbs. Then one day, while I was working on my second novel, a historical fiction piece, I was reading a novel set in the late 1800s to get a feel for the lingo and could not believe how many adverbs were used, brilliantly, I might add. So I started to take more notice. And I think it was The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin where I saw it used more and more, especially to emphasize how someone said something. So I started to use them myself, more and more. And I prefer it. Again, it is all about style and not over using anything too much and boring the reader as a result. The same I think goes for the use of italics for emphasis. Some editors tell you never to use them, but I personally like to see them in books at times. And I use them as well.

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  9. Great points. I think the idea is to examine the verb you are modifying (or your adjective) to determine if you are relying on “weak” writing to establish your point, rather than concise, powerful verbs and descriptors.

    As Alex pointed out, moderation is the way to go. I never tell a client not to use adverbs…but I do suggest that they evaluate their work closely to strengthen his/her writing.

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