“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King
In the writing world, adverbs have a bad reputation for being weak and causing unnecessary clutter. But sometimes adverbs are necessary, and other times, they liven up a sentence or strengthen a description.
Today we’re going to explore adverbs and take a look at why they can be problematic and when they are essential.
Let’s start with a basic overview:
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.
There are plenty of adverb-verb combinations that are best expressed with a single, more meaningful verb. For example, “driving fast” becomes “speeding.”
Why Adverbs Are Weak and How They Weaken Your Writing
Here’s a massive list of adverbs. The vast majority of them end in -ly, and these are among the most worthless adverbs, although they are often cited as examples to demonstrate how adverbs work. 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 tells the reader 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. Visual cues show readers what’s happening; adverbs tell them. And we want to show what’s happening whenever possible to make our writing more vivid and easier to visualize.
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.
How to Avoid Adverbs or Use Them 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 find 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, ask whether it’s the best word choice.
- 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 need 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 avoid adverbs in your writing:
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 the adverb. Now compare the original sentences with the adverbs intact to the new sentences that don’t include any adverbs. Which ones are better?
When is it okay to use an adverb? When you 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.
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 avoid adverbs or use adverbs wisely? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.