Adverbs get a bad rap.
If you’ve ever taken a writing course, perused writer’s forums, or heard soundbites from Stephen King, you’ve likely encountered adverb hate.
The thinking goes like this –
- “Adverbs are largely unnecessary.”
- “Adverbs belittle your audience.”
- “Adverbs are for amateurs.”
The internet writing community has generally come to despise adverbs, and I think that is unfortunate. Like most things, if used properly and in moderation, the lowly adverb can be a great tool that adds flavor to your writing.
That’s some intense paraphrasing, but you get the general idea. The below tips argue in favor of leaving at least some adverbs in your work.
Use With Caution
My first tip for adverb usage is to be judicious. The big complaint is many novice writers overuse adverbs as a way to “show” rather than “tell”, but it ends up backfiring and creating redundancy. Let’s look at the below sentence:
“John heard the creature’s heavy breathing as it entered the room. He quickly ran toward the door to escape the cabin.”
“Quickly” is our offending adverb in the above example. John hightails it out of the room to escape the monster (maybe a werewolf?) and in our mind’s eye and from experience we know people don’t run slowly. Therefore, “quickly” should get the red pen and be removed. It’s not needed.
However, consider this example:
“Jenna winced as she tightened the gauze around the wound on her leg. She gingerly stepped across the room towards the half empty bottle of whiskey hoping it could help dull the pain.”
Jenna has been injured (hopefully not by a werewolf!) and while that is obvious, our adverb “gingerly” reinforces HOW she walks towards the booze. People can walk different ways (slowly, quickly, with a limp, etc) and in this case, our friend the adverb adds extra detail to the sentence by emphasizing the pain she’s feeling to the reader.
Most Readers Aren’t Grammar Teachers
This statement is a bit more contentious.
Chances are, anyone explaining proper adverb usage to you is either an academic or an experienced writer. That said, “Joe & Jane Six Pack” usually want quality stories, and haven’t ben concerned with adverbs since the 6th grade. I’m NOT saying audiences are ignorant of grammar, but in the era of social media and emojis in the dictionary, the proper use of adverbs is low on their list of needs when they purchase a book. Flagrant grammar and spelling issues are a turn off, it is rare to see a review that expresses something like “This story was incredible! I loved the plot and characters, but there were just way too many adverbs everywhere. 1 Out of 5”
Always know your audience.
Beware Generalized Advice
This is becoming a persistent theme in my writing tips. Any advice that says “always” or “never” should be taken with a grain of salt. Adverbs exist for a reason, and to utterly discount them removes a tool from your box. If you’re just starting out, I feel the better approach is learning their proper use.
I hope this makes you take a second look at our maligned friend, the adverb. Don’t buy into all the hype and hate around slashing them out of your work wholesale. You might be surprised at the variety they can add to your prose when applied with some care.