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Adverbs – Halt! Friend or foe?

Written By: Eddie Snipes - Jul• 28•11

Adverbs are good when used with discretion.

Just have another writer critique your work and the first thing that will be brought before the verbal firing squad is adverbs. Adverbs are looked upon as the enemy, but are they all bad? Halt adverbsfor a moment and put them to the test.

Even for experienced writers, enemy adverbs sneak into writing like hordes of invaders. When we write, the first draft is a brainstorm. It’s the invasion of an idea onto the paper we hope will become a successful campaign. Once the words are on the page, we have to search and destroy the enemy while leaving the friendlies in place.

Lightly sprinkled, adverbs can add a little flavor to your writing, but too much and they overpower it. The author and his or her writing is like a good umpire. In a ball game, the umpire goes unnoticed unless he makes a mistake. Your goal is for readers to enjoy the story and not notice the author through mistakes or overbearing writing. Don’t let the reader stumble over words, but instead allow them to get lost in the story.

What are adverbs?

An adverb is a word that modifies any part of speech other than a noun. It can modify clauses, numbers, adjectives, verbs, and even other adverbs. It’s most common use is to modify a verb. Verbs are the life of writing, for it is the action of the story.

She ran. Ran is the verb.

She ran slowly. Slowly is the adverb.

The most common adverb ends in –ly. However, any word that modifies a verb is an adverb.

You are correct. This can be modified to read: You are quite correct. Quite then becomes an adverb.

He squatted, could be written as: He squatted down. In this case, ‘down’ becomes an adverb because it is modifying the verb.

When are adverbs foes?

In my opinion, there are two times an adverb becomes a foe. Both examples weaken an author’s writing.

1. When adverbs replace good description.

An adverb can become a shortcut around good writing. A discussion came up in a forum that provides a perfect example.

“Listen,” she said quietly. He slowly knelt down beside her.

There are three unnecessary adverbs in these two sentences: quietly, slowly, and down. How did she speak? Quietly.

How did he kneel? Slowly.

Where did he kneel? Down.

Let’s first look at the two –ly words. They provide examples of shortcuts in writing. “She spoke quietly,” is flat. She could be speaking in either a whisper or a soft voice. The reader isn’t given a visual image and would not be drawn into the story. The author can avoid the bland –ly word with something like this:

Kate waved Eddie down with a hand. “Shh. Listen.”

Now I’m getting a mental image of Kate ducking behind something and waving Eddie to the ground beside her. How an adverb is rewritten depends on the story. Perhaps they are already sitting behind a bush and you don’t need her to wave him down. Then you might just say something like this:

“Listen,” she whispered.

‘Said quietly’ is flat but whispered is direct and to the point. If the reader already knows the two people are whispering, just say something like:

“Listen,” she said.

There is no need to reiterate her quietness if they are already whispering. An author can be direct and eliminate most –ly words. Search your writing and see where –ly words can be eliminated.

He ran swiftly. He ran.

He yelled loudly. He yelled.

She slammed the car door behind her. She slammed the car door.

Many modifiers add unnecessary wordiness to your writing. Other times they shortcut writing. Read the sentence and try to determine if the reader needs more information to picture the scene, or if it would benefit from removing the modifier.

Here’s an example:

He ate greedily.

In this example, changing it to, “He ate,” probably wouldn’t cut it. In this case you’d want to show how he ate. This is the classic ‘show and don’t tell’ situation. The sentence tells the reader he was a greedy eater, but it gives no visual image. Telling is okay when done correctly, but keep in mind that telling only passes information to the reader. It doesn’t get them deeper into the story. Too much telling pushes them out of the story. Let’s turn the above sentence into an example of showing:

Eddie pressed against his girth as he reached across the table for thirds on the mash potatoes. The big man pointed to the butter beside his wife, oblivious to her scornful glances. Interrupting his hostess in mid-sentence, he spoke through his half-chewed food, “Can you pass the butter? I’ll have one more helping before they roll out the dessert. While you’re at it, slide the casserole over here, too.”

Granted, it’s wordy, but there are times when you will need to show the reader what can’t be pictured by telling. When an adverb is taking the lazy way out, it should be replaced with descriptive writing. Adverbs are foes when it prevents readers from seeing what the story intends to present.

2. When an adverbs add redundancy.

Another adverb foe is redundancies. When a modifier is telling the reader what he or she already knows, it needs to go.

He squatted down.

Is there any other way to squat?

She stepped out and slammed the car door behind her. Behind her is redundant. If a modifier or a modifying clause doesn’t change the meaning of the verb, remove it. Changing the sentence, “He squatted down,” to “He squatted,” sharpens it and doesn’t lose meaning, so it should be shortened.

Writing is hard work. The easiest way to sharpen a manuscript is to search for –ly words, but your work doesn’t end there. Chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, you must comb through your words and look for unnecessary modifiers. Not all will end in –ly.

When I edit, I go through the entire manuscript looking for one specific problem. I’ll read from beginning to end, searching for modifiers. Then I evaluate each one. If they fail on either of these, they are foes and either need to be removed, or rewritten. Even after all the work, many adverbs will still escape. This is where critique partners and editors come in.

If an –ly or other modifier stands the test, let it stay. It passes when it can’t be removed or rewritten to improve the story. There are times when an adverb is the best choice for a sentence. Most critiquers are conditioned to kill all adverbs, but this isn’t always the case. When your critique partner circles it and says, “Adverbs are evil,” evaluate the sentence. If the wording can’t be improved by rewriting or removing it, leave it in.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks Eddie. As a retired teacher, I found adverbs the hardest to teach. I was also one of those wierd people who like diagraming sentences.

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      I’m impressed! I never liked that, but then again, I also wasn’t very academic until much later in life.

  2. Linda Yezak says:

    Terrific pose, Eddie. My first novel was a -ly -ly sing-song! (That novel is dry-rotting in a drawer somewhere.) Now I use adverbs less often, primarily when I need to keep the pace and tempo of the narrative or dialogue, and often in conjunction with “showing.”

  3. Great post, Eddie! And no matter how long we write, we all need to be reminded. 🙂

  4. Kym McNabney says:

    Great post. Thanks for the detailed explanation. Some of us need that. 🙂

  5. Tracy Krauss says:

    Excellent and timely. I have fallen prey to the adverb trap myself. After someone pointed it out to me, they seem to jump off the page every time I read something with too many.

  6. Marcia Lahti says:

    Thank you for this article. The article not only helps me with my writing but will help me when I critique. I liked the picture of the woman being embraced by the words on a page too.

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