This week we’re going to be talking about those nasty adverbs we’ve all heard about at one point or another. Some famous writers *cough cough* Stephen King *cough cough* think that they’re the devil and should never be used unless absolutely necessary. I also use them a lot in my own writing and am told not to, and I’ve never really understood why they’re so heinous.
So what’s the big deal with adverbs? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. Let’s start off with those definitions I love so much:
Adverb: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ).
- a verb (He drove slowly. — How did he drive?)
- an adjective (He drove a very fast car. — How fast was his car?)
- another adverb (She moved quite slowly down the aisle. — How slowly did she move?)
Typically, if it ends in -ly, it’s going to be an adverb. Of course, this is also the English language, and there are exceptions to that rule. (I agree. It can be a little frustrating.)
**You can find a long list of commonly used adverbs here. If you want to take a deep sea dive into all the different types and how to properly use them, then I’d suggest checking out this grammar guide by Algonquin College. It provides an in-depth look at adverbs and gives examples of each type.**
All those Against…
Adverbs modify, so what’s the big deal about using them? Well, as Stephen King likes to put it:
“With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”
To compensate for that, we place more modifiers into sentences that could get by without them. I know I’m bad at doing this when writing dialogue tags. I always add a modifier because I am afraid of not getting the right type of emotion or idea across to my readers. So, on that front, I agree with Mr. King.
We need to cut the “pretty” words that are thrown in to make things more interesting or meaningful. The pretty words are the ones that make things redundant or uninteresting. For example:
He whispered to her lovingly.
Without the adverb the sentence could look like this:
He whispered words of love … my sweet, dear lover, my angel … he purred his contentment, his joy …
In the example above, those sentences are more engaging and increase the drama of the moment. It makes readers more invested. Here’s another example:
He stuttered haltingly.
If you’re stuttering, then there is already an interruption to your speech pattern. Overall, without the adverbs, the sentences become more interesting. Sentences also “sound” and read better when they’re not bogged down with adverbs. They’re more melodic.
Here’s a list of what to look for when writing and/or editing your story:
- When you’re going over your story do it carefully. Evaluate each sentence. Make sure that your modifying words are adding to the scene, the emotion, etc. and not detracting from the moment.
- Look at the context of each sentence. Does it make sense to modify it? Will it be better to punctuate the sentence differently?
- Watch for redundancies. It’s redundant to say something redundantly.
- Read out loud. That way you can hear any weirdness to your sentences. One of the most likely causes for this is when there are too many adverbs or modifiers in a sentence.
Those in favor…
That doesn’t mean that I think we should get rid of adverbs altogether. In fact, I believe the opposite. We need to keep some of them there. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to write at all. Now, I also want to look at the arguments for why we need adverbs in our lives.
According to Barbara Baig:
“An adverb is one of the four content parts of speech (the others are nouns, verbs, and adjectives) which enable us to construct sentences. Every part of speech does something in a sentence: nouns name things, verbs provide action, adjectives and adverbs add to or limit or clarify the nouns and verbs. A writer determined to eliminate adverbs will be a seriously handicapped writer, for adverbs can make more specific, add information to, not only verbs, but also adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs, like the other content parts of speech, are an essential for every writer’s toolkit; they can do things that the other parts of speech cannot.”
“Many aspiring writers struggle, not because they don’t have great ideas or wonderful stories to tell, but because they don’t have the words they need to communicate those ideas or to tell those stories. They try desperately to find the “unique voice” agents and editors want by paying close attention to their innermost selves. But these writers are looking in the wrong place: Voice is not a function of a writer’s self, but of her skill with words. Writers who want to create a distinctive voice on the page need to learn everything they can about how words work, about how they can be combined into sentences. Just like singers, writers who want to develop a great voice need to practice their techniques, over and over and over, so that those techniques become part of them, able to be used at will when they’re drafting and revising.”
Basically, she’s stating that using adverbs is a skill that needs to be mastered. It’ll happen with the development of an author’s voice. It’s going to take for that to happen and when it does, making smart, concise word choices will happen naturally.
Here are some arguments for keeping adverbs in:
- They can add meaning to a scene or your story. For example:
It was how she examined and selected the limbs that freaked Teller out. Gently, delicately. Almost lovingly.
~ Matt Moore, Fear the Abyss
By combining different modifiers, such as examined and selected, with the -ly adverbs, jars the reader and make them uncomfortable.
- You want to develop that unique voice. By following all the rules about what to put in or not will make you sound like every other writer out there doing the exact same thing that you are.
The verdict is in!
What’s the point to this entire story? Adverbs can be good and bad. You’re not going to want to take them away entirely. They do add flavor to a sentence, a scene and your story. The main take away from this is moderation and purpose. Make sure that you’re being purposeful about the adverbs that you use and that you’re not going overboard.
You don’t need to modify everything.
That’s it, that’s all. I hope this helped! Next week we will finally be talking about incorporating action into our stories.
Until next week!