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About Those Adverbs …
THE ADVERB may be the most overused, discussed, hated, and abused article of written language. But before I go on about adverbs, I want to make sure you understand what I’m talking about. Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and most often end in “ly.” Examples include “suddenly,” “prettily,” and “groggily.”
Steven King is famous for his stance toward adverbs. In his book, On Writing, he says, “The adverb is not your friend.” And “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” With adverbs, “the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he/she is not getting the point across.”
Steven King is not the only famous writer who shuns adverbs. In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark writes, “At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it.”Avoid using an adverb when a more direct way of saying something is possible. Click To Tweet
I agree. For example, in the following sentence, “He yelled loudly,” loudly is redundant because yelling is already loud. Have you ever heard anyone yell quietly?
Or how about “He leaped suddenly out of the bushes and yelled, ‘Boo!’” Have you ever seen someone leap gradually? “Suddenly” is unnecessary and weakens the sentence. Get rid of it.
Many adverbs, such as “truly,” “only,” “very,” and “absolutely,” are what I call throwaway words. Please, do throw them away. Your prose will be magically improved.
That’s not to say that all adverbs are bad, or that they can’t be used to good purpose. Everyone uses them, including Steven King. Consider the following sentence from page 122 of On Writing: “Strunk and White offer the best tools (and the best rules) you could hope for, describing them simply and clearly.” (Italics mine.) Sure, King could have ended the sentence at “hope for,” but he wanted to tell us why we should read Strunk and White’s rules for writing.
So when is it okay to use an adverb?
When it adjusts the meaning of a verb or adjective in a surprising direction or there is not a stronger verb or adjective with the precise meaning you want.
In The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr employs adverbs so sparsely, I had to read for several pages to find one: “I had wished her dead a thousand times, even prayed for it, no less fiercely than I’d prayed for Grandma to die.” “Fiercely,” in this passage modifies the verb “prayed.” It intensifies the verb and helps us understand the energy behind it. We are used to “prayed quietly” or “prayed fervently,” but “prayed fiercely” communicates Karr’s strength of emotion as she prayed.
Opening The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver to a random page, I have to hunt for my first adverb. Ah, there it is: “Then all would go quiet and we’d return cheerlessly to our books.” In this case, “cheerlessly” is a well-placed adverb, because it clues us into the narrator’s frame of mind as she goes back to her books.
When should you not use that adverb?
In general, you should avoid using an adverb when a compelling or more direct way of saying something is possible. If you find yourself wanting to include an adverb to modify a verb in order to make your meaning known, then you should probably look for a more precise verb. For example, “he strode” is a better choice than “he walked confidently.”
How to strengthen your writing through selective use of adverbs:
When editing, go through your work to identify and highlight or circle all the adverbs. Read each sentence without the adverb and decide if it is stronger or weaker. If it’s stronger, delete the adverb. If the verb or adjective you are modifying just doesn’t do the trick all by itself to communicate what you want, is there a better one that will? If so, use it.
If you want help finding your adverbs, you can use your word processing software, such as Microsoft Word. Check out my article, Copyediting with Find and Replace for directions.
I’m absolutely confident you’ll be a much better writer (an example of unnecessary adverbs).
What I want to say is, I’m confident you’ll be a better writer.
Do you practice hunting down and killing your darling adverbs? Share your thoughts on this topic.