Writing Tips: Abolish the Adverbs

writing tips adverbs

Are they slowly running or are they jogging?

Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. Adjectives modify nouns whereas adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and clauses. In fact, an adverb can modify an entire sentence. This gives adverbs a rather large playing field; maybe that explains why they are overused.

For example, car is a noun and red is an adjective. Put them together and you get a red car. The word run is a verb and the word quickly is an adverb. Put them together and you get run quickly.

But run quickly is better stated as sprint.

The examples above demonstrate why adjectives can be useful in writing and why adverbs are usually useless. Too often, adverbs are unnecessary and serve only to clutter a piece of writing.

Why Adverbs Are Weak and How They Weaken Your Writing

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King


Here’s a list of 3732 adverbs. The vast majority of them end in -ly, and these are among the most useless adverbs although they are often cited as examples. Ask someone how to identify an adverb and they’ll either tell you it modifies a verb or it’s one of those words that ends in -ly. Why are adverbs that end in -ly so awful? I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at an example sentence:

“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked flirtatiously.

It’s a horrid sentence. The adverb flirtatiously is practically an insult to readers. It tells them how she asked the question when instead, it should show how she asked:

“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.

It may not be the greatest sentence ever written, but showing the character batting her eyelashes is a lot better than telling readers she asked a question flirtatiously.

Most adverbs either tell us what we already know or use too many words to communicate an image or idea. Let’s look at an adverb that modifies an adjective:

It’s a very warm day.

Once we write that a day is warm, does it being very warm change the day in the reader’s mind? The word very does nothing other than intensify the word that follows it and it does so poorly. Often, the word very and the word it modifies can both be eliminated and replaced with a single word that is more precise:

It’s a hot day.

In this sentence, we don’t need the word very or the word warm. The word hot does the job. It’s clearer and more concise, which is the mark of strong writing.

Writing Tips for Using Adverbs Wisely

“Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” ~ Mark Twain

I’m always on the lookout for unnecessary words in my own writing. I find that seeking out adverbs is a good way to discover words I can cut to tighten my prose. I may not catch them all but I sure try. Here are some guidelines I apply when dealing with adverbs:

  • Don’t be lazy. Choosing the right word is never a waste of time.
  • Stay away from adverbs that state the obvious. One does not scream loudly because by definition, screaming is done loudly.
  • If a sentence is too short, don’t add a bunch of adverbs (or adjectives) to make it longer.
  • Train your eye to catch adverbs when you’re editing and proofreading.
  • When you spot an adverb, do your best to rewrite the sentence without it.
  • Only use an adverb if it’s necessary and you can’t convey the same meaning without it.
  • Avoid vague or non-descriptive adverbs. Ask whether the adverb tells the reader something that you can show through imagery and description.
  • Don’t use an adverb as a crutch for a verb (or any other word). Look for a better verb. If necessary, write a better sentence.
  • Sometimes, when you eliminate a single adverb, you have to replace it with several words. It took three words (batting her eyelashes) to replace one adverb (flirtatiously) but the sentence became clearer and more vivid.
  • Don’t be redundant. One does not stealthily creep because to creep is to move with stealth.
  • When you do use adverbs, use them intentionally and with purpose.
  • Make it a goal to never use the words very or really.

Are You Overusing Adverbs?

Here’s an exercise you can do to gauge your use of adverbs:

Dig through your writing and find a final draft that has been edited and proofread. Go through and highlight every adverb. Ask a friend to check it and see if you missed any. How many adverbs did you find? How many adverbs were there per 100 words? Per 1000? Remove each adverb and ask whether doing so changes the meaning of the sentence. If it does change the meaning, then rewrite the sentence without an adverb. Now compare the original sentences with the adverbs intact to the new sentences that don’t have any adverbs. Which ones are better?

Using Adverbs

So, when is it okay to use an adverb? When you absolutely must. Here are some examples of sentences that use adverbs well (the adverbs are italicized):

Congress recently passed a new law.
She entered the room silently.
He drives a dark green sedan.

As you can see, sometimes we need adverbs. We just need to use them sparingly, which is a good rule of thumb for using words in general.

Are you attuned to how you use adverbs in your writing? Have you ever visited an old piece of writing and found it littered with unnecessary words? Do you have any writing tips to help other writers use adverbs wisely (or not at all)? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and keep writing.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

25 Responses to “Writing Tips: Abolish the Adverbs”

  1. Bill says:

    In the example “dark green sedan” is “dark” not an adjective?

    • In the example, “green” is an adjective because it modifies the noun “sedan.” Since the word “dark” modifies the adjective “green,” it is an adverb (adverbs modify adjectives). Adjectives modify nouns and noun phrases and cannot modify other adjectives.

      • Bill says:

        Hi Melissa
        I want to buy a beautiful, new, blue, European car. 
        Which ones are adverbs?
        “Dark” doesn’t appear in any of my dictionaries as an adverb, only noun and adjective..
        Cheers
        Bill

        • Hi Bill,

          In your example sentence, the following words are adjectives: beautiful, new, blue, European. Every one of these words modifies the noun “car.” The verb phrase in your sentence is “want to buy” and there are no words that modify it. There are also no words that modify any of the adjectives in your sentence. Therefore, there are no adverbs in the sentence.

          Adjectives modify nouns and noun phrases. There are no exceptions where an adjective modifies a verb or another adjective. One could argue that in the phrase “dark green sedan,” both “dark” and “green” modify the noun “sedan” and are therefore both adjectives. It’s just as feasible to argue that “dark green” is a phrase comprised of the adjective “green” and its modifier/adverb “dark.”

          Basically, if “dark” modifies “green,” then it has to be an adverb because only an adverb can modify an adjective. My own dictionary says “dark” is an adjective in the phrase “dark brown” but in the context it provides, “brown” is a noun, not an adjective (“a dark brown”).

          This one’s probably an argument for the ages. I would say both arguments are valid.

  2. Bob says:

    I try really hard not to use adverbs very often, but I frequently find myself repeatedly using them in nearly everything I write. It’s difficult to break the habit, but I’m doing my best. Conciseness is, to me, the hardest part of writing. I do tend to pontificate. Thanks for reminding me that I should trim it down a little.

  3. MJ Brewer says:

    This information is golden. I discovered I am an “adverb addict” and tend to use the words so often I could cut half the time out of my papers by getting straight to the point, just in eliminating adverbs.

    • I think most of us have words that we use a little too frequently. Every so often, I notice some filler word that I use and I have to make a concentrated effort to edit it out and break the habit.

  4. Jeannot says:

    Firstly, please forgive my poor writing. English isn’t my main language.

    Wow! I’m editing and rewriting my Nanowrimo’s draft at the moment and I can say that your post is what I needed.
    A lot of my sentences sounded weird or weak and I didn’t knew how to fixed them. After reading your post, I realized what I had to do.
    So a thousand time thank you!

  5. Great article! Confession: until recently I had no idea how hated adverbs are. Once I realized it though, it was one of those “ah ha” moments where things began to make sense. Great lesson.

  6. Kelvin Kao says:

    I have a theory that perhaps we use adverbs so much because we were saying (or writing) the sentences before we finished gathering all our thoughts. For example, she ran quickly. The first idea that came to mind was that it was a she. And then she was running. And then we decided that the way she ran was quick, so she ran quickly. If I had said “she quickly ran”, I was probably thinking that she had to be moving quickly, and to accomplish the task of moving quickly, what she had to do is run.

  7. Schuyler Thorpe says:

    I for one am not afraid of the English language or using adverbs to help describe things or move things along. If I want to use an adverb, I’ll use it. Same with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and so on.

    I’m not afraid. And I simply don’t care what the “experts” think or say. They aren’t the ones writing my books. I am.

    So I’ll use whatever gets the job done. And if there’s a ton of adverbs, verbs, adjectives, and whatnot in it…?

    Tough.

    My books. My rules. Get used to it.

  8. She entered the room silently. :: “She crept into the room without making a sound.” See? Even that sentence could be rewritten without the adverb. :-)

    I had the rule pounded into my brain so much that as soon as my fingers type “ly” they move to the “backspace” key. An adverb will remain if I can think of no other way to convey the action to the reader. Or, of course, it’s being used in dialogue because I want my character’s speech to come across as natural as possible.

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