Writers (and editors) are passionate creatures. We go into battle armed with the pen (or keyboard), staunchly defend viewpoints, and crafting characters, all with a few well-chosen words.
But when it comes to those well-chosen words, you’ll find some more controversial than others. Enter, the adverb.
You’ve likely heard writers or editors railing against these types of words, saying they should never be used. The argument for their omission can be a heated one.
But if you’re new to writing, or in the throes of revisions you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. It can feel intimidating to ask why when faced with a passionate black and white stance from writers and editors who seem more experienced.
That being said, writing “rules” do very little to grow our writing craft. It’s only by considering and understanding different words and their applications that we can learn. Once we know, it’s easier to discover our own stance for a particular story, novel or piece of writing.
We need to know the “rules” before we can attempt to break them. (I’ve said “rules” because language, particularly when it comes to fiction writing, is evolving and can be applied creatively)
This article will discuss what an adverb is, assess why some people recommend avoiding them, and share some tips and tricks for when considering your own use of adverbs.
What is an adverb?
This is a simple explanation and we could go into far more depth, but an easy way to remember this is that an adverb “adds” information to another word. In English, adverbs are often created by adding “ly” (suffix) onto the end of a word.
Most often, adverbs focus on adding information to a verb (a “doing” word) and focus on the way the action is being performed
The man whistled cheerfully (here, the word “cheerfully” adds information about the way the man is whistling)
Want to learn more about adverbs is? Here is a great place to start.
Why do people recommend avoiding adverbs?
The road to hell is paved with adverbsStephen King
You might have heard the above quote, usually featured somewhere on a tips and tricks listicle for ways to polish your writing. But while there is some element of truth to the perspective share, there’s room for a more nuanced discussion.
The argument against adverbs is that they are regularly overused. In contemporary fiction writing, concise writing is highly valued.
“Less is more” is touted to encourage writers to trim away words which do not add to the impact of a sentence and the scene.
There’s merit to this, particularly if you’re aiming to produce commercial fiction (that is, writing with the aim of selling). There’s been a trend in language away from writing that excessively relies on adverbs to communicate additional information. It seems that overall, writing which is direct and clear is generally preferred by many readers.
The argument that using adverbs is lazy stems from a belief that many times, there is a way to describe the way something is happening, without the use of an adverb. Whether through metaphor, simile or rephrasing.
However, that doesn’t mean that adverbs should never be used. They fulfil a function, which when applied well (and not overused) can lead to writing which is effective.
How should you use adverbs in your own writing?
Every writer has their own style. Some use very few, if any, adverbs, while others may be more inclusive. But generally, contemporary writers publishing commercial fiction use adverbs sparingly.
When considering how you would like to (or not like to) include adverbs in your writing, it’s worth considering your audience, genre and goals for your writing.
If you are writing children’s fiction, I think it is important to acknowledge that adverbs play an important role in assisting kids to grow in their knowledge of how the world and language works.
Some genres may be more or less open to adverbs, but generally fiction which is commercial (published for the general market) tends to at the include some adverbs, though less than in children’s fiction.
If you’re writing for yourself, and even in first drafts, take the pressure off! Write with adverbs, or not, whatever flows naturally. I like to remember that you can’t edit a blank page… you can always return later and reassess during your revisions.
I really do believe that there isn’t any “shoulds”, but that so much is dependant on an individual author’s style and the book itself. Do what works for you.
How can you tell if an adverb needs cutting?
If you’ve identified that you may be relying on adverbs, you might be thinking about cutting them out. But it can be hard to discern which need to be deleted, or changed, and which are fine to stay.
Does the sentence make sense if the adverb is missing?
Does context provide the same information that the adverb does? If so, you may be doubling up unnecessarily. It can be more emotionally rewarding for readers if they can feel the emotion or impact of the writing, without having an adverb spell it out for them.
Our character has just attended the funeral of a good friend. Our character arrives home, opens the fridge, and sees a bottle of wine their friend brought over last week. Our character begins to sadly cry.
We do not need the adverb “sadly” here. From the context of this scene, most readers will understand that the character is crying because they are sad. Therefore the adverb is not “adding” any additional information and can be omitted.
This is when we veer into “show, don’t tell” territory. While sometimes telling is okay, more often than not you’re better off describing what is happening, rather than relying on an adverb to do the work in a scene.
Let’s look at another example:
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ she asked nervously.
Here, the adverb “nervously” tells the reader about the emotional state of the character, rather than showing it.
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ she asked, as her hands trembled.
While it’s not the most ground-breaking example, you get the idea. Adverbs can conceal opportunities to share information through action. Which is usually more engaging for readers.
Readers are clever. Most of the time, if a scene is written well, adverbs are not as necessary. It is rewarding for readers to uncover the depth of information being conveyed to them, without everything being spelled out.
Other times, adverbs can be replaced by a different verb. For example, “slowly walk” could be replaced by “dawdle” or “stroll”. Your desire to use an adverb could be a sign that the verb you’ve chosen (“walk”) is not the right one.
Adverbs are not inherently evil. There’s no need to get rid of all of them! They can serve a useful purpose in conveying information to readers. However, it is worthwhile taking a considered approach to them to avoid overuse.
If you’re not sure if you’re overusing adverbs, or if they’re having a negative impact on your story, it may be worth considering engaging a beta reader or editor. Another pair of eyes is beneficial in the writing journey.
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