Much Ado About Adverbs

A lot of writers hate adverbs.  They are ‘the enemy’, ‘lazy’, ‘timid’, and Stephen King believes the road to hell is paved with them.  I had an instructor who would always circle them on my work and tell me – not ask me – to change them because ‘good writers didn’t need to use them.’  I wanted to pull my hair out.

I’m not talking about amplifier adverbs like until, never, often, almost, and every, or even the sparingly used, somewhat occasionally acceptable emphasizing adverbs like simply, definitely, figuratively, or literally.

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I am talking about the hated, loathed, and despised -ly adverbs.  The ones that are made by adding the -ly ending to your favorite adjective.

It’s frustrating, because when you are in grade school, you are taught to use them.  Your teachers didn’t want you writing bare bones sentences like ‘I was happy’.  They wanted meaty sentences like, ‘I was extremely happy (and why).’  They encouraged us to modify our verbs and elaborate on how and why.  We became experts at it.

Now, we are told no way!  It’s bad form.  Ugh!  I love adverbs, and this is a difficult truth for me to accept.  However, I am really beginning to believe that it’s not the adverb itself that is bad, but instead how a writer uses it, and the trick is knowing how and when.

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Telling someone that you are ‘extremely tired’ is sloppy, lazy, timid, and definitely, poor form, because there are single words that you can use that convey the same meaning.  You can be exhausted or worn out.  You never need to tell someone you are extremely exhausted, unless you are talking to your BFF and trying to let her know how hard your day was.  Extremely exhausted is superfluous.  Look up exhausted in the dictionary and it reads ‘extremely tired.’

The other common misuse of adverbs is in dialogue.  Whether you are one of those writers who staunchly believes the word ‘said’ is sufficient, or whether you like to sprinkle your dialogue with descriptive replacement for ‘said’, you rarely need a modifier, and if you want to use one, most times you can use the adverb as an adjective by adding a couple other words.  For example:

“Are all you men alike?” Emily asked, gloomily.

 

“Are all you men alike?” Emily asked, her voice sounding gloomy.

Or make it even more dramatic:

“Are all you men alike?” Emily agonized.

When I use adverbs, I use them in two ways.  One is adding effect.  The other is the unavoidable use of one because there is no other word or phrase to use in its place.

When I want to show (and not tell) a reader something, I will modify my verbs with adjectives.  For instance, instead of saying something generic and lazy like, ‘she really loved him a lot,’

I will say ‘she was madly in love with him,’

or even better,

She was in love with him.  MadlyDeeplyIrrevocably.

Some writers may not choose to do this.  I do.  It’s part of my writing style.  And I’m okay with doing this. And occasionally – very occasionally – I will add one for effect if I think it flows smoother.

“You really believe that shit you tell yourself, don’t you?” he laughed mirthlessly and shook his head.

But hey, what do I know?  I’m still writing my first book.

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