Adverbs Are Not the Enemy

LyIt’s the inappropriate and unnecessary use of these modifiers of verbs that gets writers into trouble. Overusing them is a sign of lazy writing, and while some editor and critics are uber-sensitive to every appearance, you can’t leaf through a title on the New York Times best seller list without finding adverbs sprinkled throughout.

Should you need a refresher on the function of adverbs, I refer you to, but, in short, they’re most often identified as words ending in “ly,” though this is not universal.

“She struck him forcefully, knocking him down to the ground.” Forcefully is the adverb, but why is it there? The strike must have been forceful or he wouldn’t have fallen. The sentence loses no meaning when written: “She struck him, knocking him down to the ground,” and it’s that unnecessary adverb that breeds the ire of purists.

Bonus example #1: Where is the ground? It’s down. Remove the unnecessary word. “She struck him, knocking him to the ground,” takes two entirely redundant words out of play, shortening and clarifying the sentence. Bonus example #2: How can something be partially redundant? Which adverb would you remove from my previous sentence?

Comfy Chair rule #3: Any word that can be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning, intent, or clarity of the sentence should be.

Many writers-on-writing admonish new authors to avoid adverbs. Their concerns are not unwarranted as shown in the previous example. Adverbs are a convenient, easy, albeit lazy way of describing a character’s actions or a scene.

“She walked confidently down the corridor into his lavishly adorned office,” is a well constructed sentence with ample description. However, ample writing can be poor writing. There are a dozen variations of this sentence that can be constructed—and you may want to see how many you can create just as an exercise—but “She paraded down the corridor into his lavish office,” conveys both her action and the nature of the office. In fact, “parade” conveys more meaning than “walked confidently.” It shows instead of tells. And what about his office can be lavish except how it’s adorned? The new sentence is streamlined.

Writing “[adverb]ly walked” ignores the dozens of synonyms for “walk” that express every attitude of perambulation. Hike, jaunt, stroll, sashay, lumber, and shuffle are just a few. No writer should ever create without open in a browser window. Writers should never edit their own work without using a word frequency counter.

How much different is, “She lumbered down the corridor into his lavish office,” than the original. You can feel reluctance replace the confidence of the previous iteration while avoiding adverbs that the ly-police abhor.

Comfy Chair rule #4: Good Prose contains an element of poetry.

The flow of words is essential to good writing and adverbs can cause turbulence. Many Amazon reviews include some variant of “easy read,” “quick read,” or “fun read” in the description of five-star rated selections, and that stems from flow. The awkwardness of the adverb-poisoned phrase, “She walked fearfully,” for example, causes a reader’s mind to stumble ever so slightly. Add up all those stumbles over three-hundred-fifty pages and the read is not easy, quick, or fun. Improperly used adverbs are the broken cobblestones on the roadway to good writing.

The common misuse of adverbs to modify words that by themselves imply the adverb is at the core of the case made by anti-adverb militants. He whispered quietly. How else does one whisper if not quietly? That’s the point to whispering. He whispered says it all.

Entirely—as seen earlier—is one of those adverbs that many writers include for emphasis. It flowed from my fingertips in the first draft of this posting. I opted to let it stand as a negative example. There’s nothing wrong with the word, but the verb it was modifying—redundant—required no emphasis.

Another example is, “Entirely implausible.” Can something be partially implausible? No, then it’s plausible to some degree. Either it plauses or it doesn’t plause and implausible, by itself, leaves no doubt that it can’t plause. Always test the modified word as I just did. In addition to cleaning up your writing, you’ll get a good laugh.

Another over-used adverb, is the non-ly adverb, “very.” Is she very happy? Then she’s elated. If she’s not elated, then she’s [just] happy. Use the thesaurus.

Good writing demands that the word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph convey meaning and emphasis without telling about it. Happy or elated, that’s still telling. Show us: “She looked at the negative sign on the test strip and leapt, and danced, and spun.” That’s showing and will be the topic of another blog posting.

Practical guide:

You won’t get it perfect in the first draft. Nobody does. Not Patterson, not King, not you or me. Don’t beat yourself up trying. Let the words flow, then cut them in draft #2 through draft #15.

If you’re word-count obsessed, write at least ten-percent more than you require for your final product because you will cut that number of words when you self-edit. If, after self-editing, you employ a professional editor as you should, many more words will evaporate from your manuscript.


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