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Averbs: To Use or Not to Use

Adverbs get a bad rap in writing circles. Many popular sources of writing advice suggest avoiding adverbs or editing them out, while the givers of this advice admittedly use adverbs themselves.

Unfortunately, this is one of those writing "rules" that identifies a useful tool for certain writing styles, but has been so disconnected and watered down that it no longer provides any useful information.

Adverbs are a functional part of the English language. For example, "tomorrow" is an adverb in the sentence "I will go tomorrow." It may not look like an adverb to you, but it's describing the verb by adding the time when the verb will take place.

Removing the word "tomorrow" from your manuscript is not practical advice. It's likely to make your story roundabout and confusing, rather than better writing. So you can see that strictly removing all adverbs isn't likely to make your book stronger.

Some writing advice has accounted for this problem by limiting their prescription to removing words that end with -ly. This is better, but can still be bad advice.

Here is where that advice can be helpful:

A common example of bad adverbs is in dialogue tags. In a first draft it is easy to write "he said angrily." But in the final book there are ways to show that information to create a greater impact on the readers. One way may be to write dialogue that carries an angry tone intrinsically. Another is to choose a more specific verb such as yell or shout. A third way is to use a beat such as "he smashed his fist through the wall."

These methods make the anger feel more real than the adverb would. If you are already doing these things, your adverb may be redundant or repetitive. So in a case of showing rather than telling, removing the adverb generally does improve the sentence.

But showing is not always better than telling. Showing generally ends up taking more words than telling would. During a fast-paced scene or when the detail being described is minor, taking too much time will hurt the flow of your book. In these cases, keeping the adverb is likely to work better.

As another example, you might use an adverb in the sentence "he danced awkwardly." Theoretically you could find a way to describe the awkward dancing without the word awkwardly, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have improved the sentence.

You might say "his dancing made the other people uncomfortable", but this does not mean exactly the same thing as the original sentence.

Rewording sentences to avoid adverbs can change your meaning slightly. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes the new meaning is better. Other times, changing the meaning of your sentence will lead to weaker writing.

As a writer, your job is not to find ways to say things that can merely be understood, but to say things in a way that is hard to misunderstand. You should be aware of and in control of the connotations and implications of your words, not merely the dictionary definitions. To do this well, sometimes you need an adverb. That is, after all, why they exist.

If you're worried about overusing or misusing adverbs, feel free to run a search for -ly, but make sure to focus on changing the ones that aren't helping your story. Sometimes an adverb really is the best way to communicate your meaning. You just have to be aware of why you are using the adverbs and whether they are the best choice for your intended effect.

Happy editing!

About my coauthor:

Elestrei Engrei was a huge help at providing the author perspective for this post.

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