Writers love to describe the world they have created for their audience. One of the things I most enjoy about working with authors is the passion they have in sharing their vision with their readers. The delight of the written word is easy for me to pick up from my clients, and it fills me with joy to see how much we authors are connected in our love of writing and in our drive to describe our inner perceptions with our followers. We want to take them on a journey. We want them to see what we see, hear what our characters hear and experience the sensations of this universe of our making. The endeavor of writing and reading is a tremendous and fantastic undertaking. What could be better?
There are some pitfalls in this craft of writing, and one of the major ones I run across on a regular basis is the overuse of adverbs. This is a hotly debated topic in writing circles: are they wrong or are they okay to use? Let me frame it in way that moves away from correctness or incorrectness but rather more in terms of asking the question of how to make the most of your writing. It isn’t that adverbs are wrong. They are most certainly a part speech that is recognized and validated, and there are times when they are quite useful. The problem occurs when they start accumulating. I find that adverbs, like rabbits, are something that begin to multiply rapidly once they take hold. “ How can a modifier of a verb compare to a darling little mammal?” you might ask. You might even be right to ask, especially if you are also an editor and keeping a wary eye out for the overuse of similes and metaphors (for which there will be an upcoming blog post—be sure to watch for it!) But I would assure you that much like the critters of famed reproductive zeal, adverbs tend to multiply and flourish. Where there was once an occasional one or two, you start finding four, then six, and soon the page is peppered with words ending in that dreaded “ly”.
“So?” I can hear the belligerence in your tone all the way from here. “You already said that they are a valid part of speech. What’s the problem?”
“Ah, you’re clever!” I would say, because you are quite correct to rebut my objections with the cold, hard truth. Adverbs, in and of themselves, are perfectly allowable (see what I did there?). However, as with most rules, it requires temperance and guidance to understand application. For instance: readers often experience fatigue when they encounter similar words and phrases. If they notice that many of the words you use look or sound the same, they will get bored and tend to skip ahead, even on a micro level. If they think they can predict what you are going to say, they will start skimming. Thus begins a watershed. The boredom with your writing style soon leads to boredom with plot. This is not a path you want to to lead your readers down. You do not want them to be bored with a single word. Not one! You want to create the sort of story that makes readers stay up, bleary-eyed, into the wee hours of the night, thinking to themselves “Just one more page”. You don’t want them to skip to the end or, far worse, shut it in the middle and forget where they left the book altogether. Do adverbs alone cause this? Perhaps not alone, but they are a part. They signal a masterful grasp of writing style to a reader—or the lack thereof.
At the beginning of the article, I discussed how much a writer wants to share their vision of their story with the world. They often employ adverbs to more accurately describe action in the story and give more life to the scene, but it has the opposite effect due to reader fatigue. What’s more, adverbs can indicate writer laziness. This seems counterintuitive, but consider the following sentences:
- The cloud floated lazily across the afternoon sky.
- She loudly shouted, “Hey, give that back, you idiot!”
- He angrily threw his towel to the floor.
In these examples, the adverb doesn’t add to the information being provided, even though at first glance it seems supportive. In the first sentence, the verb, float, is adequate. Clouds float. The nature of floating is that it is a lazy motion. It is not necessary to describe it any further; the laziness is implied in the verb itself. Providing an adverb, in this case, is adding two words together that mean the same thing. It is akin to saying “I have cash money,” or “I am drinking wet water.” It is simply unnecessary, and if you get into the habit of writing extraneous words, your readers will begin skipping them.
The second example is similar in that loudness is implied when someone is shouting. However, this example is even more important because it contains dialogue which gives the readers all the context clues that they should need to understand the tension of the scene. Whether you are writing anger, sadness, love or anything else, the emotion should be very easily gleaned by the dialogue. If you must rely on adverbs to prop up your writing, you need to take some time to extend and support that scene.
The third example brings us to the true lack of effort in hidden sentences here and there. In a first draft, these sentences don’t seem important. They are conveying action as part of a larger scene. Something else is happening, and this is just to get us to where the major action is. However, it is important to remember that each and every sentence must pay its way. There is no sentence that is too small to be examined. If you have even one bland sentence, your readers will lose interest. If you have a sentence in your story that is not worthy of having been written by a real writer, you need to go back and shore it up. Take this third example: it is functional but not spectacular. It conveys an action but nothing else. The adverb, angrily, should be omitted because surrounding dialogue or scene should set the emotions. If you must tell the reader that the character is angry, then you must question why you can’t communicate that point in a more subtle fashion. Let’s then reconstruct the remainder of the sentence with the adverb gone: He threw his towel to the floor. This leaves all of the stress on the verb, threw. This is a garden variety verb, and it lacks pizazz. If you are going to cut down on adverbs, then you need to dazzle with your verbs. Flung, tossed, chucked … These are all stronger and more interesting choices. They are a little more unusual, and they will interest readers in your story.
You took up the craft of writing because you are not like everyone else. You are a better writer with a story to tell. As such, you are going to have to find a better way to tell it This is going to require you to stretch a bit beyond the clichés and the treads of words that others before you have worn into common parlance. You are going to have to snap this language together in your own, unique way. This takes work. But it is why you are such a great writer! It isn’t going to happen on the first draft, and maybe not even on the second, third or fourth. On some hammering out of your story, you will find a way to make your mark on the puzzle that is our language, and when it is paired with that plot that is yours to tell, you are going to be absolutely brilliant. One of the steps in this process is learning to cut out the crutch of adverbs. I know you can do it! I hope that this article helps explain why and how. I can’t wait to see you accomplish it and have a better story to tell when you get there. Good luck and happy writing!