Adverbs are Language Bread

Mark Twain made a comment once that every time you want to write “very”, you should write “damn” instead so the editor will remove it.

These days you’d have to use a different word, but the spirit of the advice rings true. Don’t use the word “very”. Or the word “quickly”, “wryly”, “gingerly”, or “bitchily” if you listen to listen to quick advice from anyone who has claimed to be a writer for longer than five years.

It’s good advice for the most part. Whenever you find yourself wanting to describe the way someone picks up an object with “gingerly” there’s a good chance you could find a single verb to get the message across more efficiently.

But here’s the thing…

Adverbs are like bread: they’re never essential, but they’re great for making it fuller quickly

One time my wife came home from work and told me “I saw a rat today that was very dead.” That phrase “very dead” is technically sloppy. There shouldn’t be any functional difference between a dead rat and a very dead rat. But it turns out there is:

A dead rat is a rodent that’s not longer alive. A very dead rat is more like a tortilla of fur with a tail sticking out in the middle of a busy road downtown.

To put this back into food terms, a dead rat is an egg. A very dead rat is an egg on toast, and that’s a breakfast worth eating. And just to get away from the word “very” (because that’s a weird word that doesn’t fit very neatly in the adverb category), lets make up an example.

There’s a man walking across the street. In the same way that you could trick yourself into feeling full by eating a slice of bread, you can trick a reader into thinking a guy walking across the street is more interesting by saying he did it “eccentrically”.

The problem is that word “eccentrically”, like bread, isn’t providing a whole lot of nutrition, because what the hell does it look like when you walk eccentrically? All that really tells us is the man was walking in a weird way. Still more interesting than if he just walked, but it’s more confusing than helpful if that’s all the information we’re given.

Obviously you could find a better adverb to throw in there: Maybe the man walked “lightly”, which seems pretty good. The gives the impression that he’s happy and carefree. Or maybe it means he’s just light on his feet like a dancer. Or maybe it actually means he’s walking cautiously, trying not to make too much noise.

Hopefully you’re starting to see the danger of adverbs here (if you didn’t know it before): they’re efficient, but they’re informationally weak. In any sentence ever written in anything, it’s unlikely it was the adverb that ever tugged at your heartstrings or changed your mind. You can get broad strokes of feeling with them (“they drank freely”, “he stood resolutely”, “she spat weakly”), but if you rely on them too much, your writing starts to feel empty.

For Example:

“Jane woke up quickly, ready to spring out of bed. She ran happily to outside to carefully collect eggs for breakfast. In the early morning sun she thoughtfully sorted through the chicken coop, filling her basket, then walking briskly back to the house to start breakfast. But just before she got back to the house an anvil dropped solidly onto her head, killing her instantly, while Jack, sitting casually above on the roof, laughed heartily to himself. He kept laughing, hoping emptily to fill the silence to which he had just doomed himself.”

That little piece was intentionally clunky to make my point, but you can probably see the places where it can be improved without much effort.

If we rewrite that without any adverbs at all it might look like this:

“Jane bolted awake and sprang out of bed. She skipped outside to pick eggs for breakfast. In the early morning sun she picked through the chicken coop, filling her basket, then trotted back to the house to start breakfast. But just before she got back to the house and anvil dropped onto her head, killing her instantly, while Jack, lounging above on the roof, roared in laughter, straining to filling the silence to which he had just doomed himself.”

Hopefully you’re seeing a couple things in there. One should be where removing the adverb and changing the verb made some sentences punchier and more interesting (“Jane bolted awake and sprang out of bed” gets things moving a lot quicker), and the second should be where it was actually better with the adverb, because sometimes you just can’t get enough information with one verb.

Saying she “trotted” back to the house doesn’t quite convey the same feeling as “walked briskly”, and you might have noticed I didn’t even try changing “killing her instantly”. The same goes for Jack laughing “heartily” versus him roaring with laughter. In that case, trying to find a way around the adverb made the phrase a little longer, and it only changed the shade of how he laughed.

This is all fairly detailed fine tuning (the kind of thing you do in late-stage editing, hopefully), but here’s the other thing…

Sometimes you just want to chew on an adverb.

It’s cool if you want to try being the next Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy and abuse the reader with an absence of commas, but for the rest of us mortals, there’s a time and place to throw in an adverb and be done with a sentence.

I had this epiphany after I had spent a couple weeks depriving myself of bread in a vain attempt to regain some glimmer of youth before the waves of time squished me into a reclining pancake.

After the initial pangs of withdrawal, things went pretty well. I woke up feeling better than I had in my entire life. I felt lighter and more energetic. What little muscle I had stood out more, and it seemed to be working better. I walked into he kitchen and made coffee with the power of brain alone, having the heavy chains of white flour lifted off my soul.

Then one day I woke feeling less great. I went for a run can came back sick and achy and generally more hateful of the whole world, which a pretty high bar to clear. I made breakfast then looked down at the naked pile of eggs and coffee in front of me, this dry stack of protein and caffeine that was on the plate for the sole purpose of keeping me alive and just felt… empty.

Fast forward an hour later and I’m buried ears deep in a croissant filled with eggs reeking of bacon fat. That was the most satisfying god damn thing I’d ever eaten. I didn’t sleep that night because it took a solid twenty hours for my heart slow down, but I lay happily in bed thinking of that breakfast croissant sandwich.

In case you got lost in my little visual, the take away here is that adverbs are never required to make a sentence make sense, but sometimes it’s the thing that makes a sentence worth reading.

Think of the naked eggs as a sentence like “he walked across the street”, and the adverb is the big chunk of bread you could smash those eggs into to make your life more palatable. “He walked across the street happily”. It’s not much, but at least it creates the impression that there’s something more than walking at work.

You could make the eggs themselves better by playing the verb like we did with my example earlier: “He jaunted across the street,” but we’re not here to talk about eggs, so you just go ahead and jamb that adverb in alongside it and say “he jaunted across the street happily” then deep fry that fucker with an extra clause like “he jaunted across the street happily, chewing on his own tongue.”

Now there’s a sentence. I don’t know what the hell is going on with that guy, but you bet for damn sure I’m gonna read the next sentence to find out.

It’s clunky and weird, but it gets the job done, and sometimes you just need to eat a slice of bread to move on with your life. Stop being such a coward. Forget about the calories and stuff your literary face with modifying words.