How can one abuse an adverb? An adverb isn’t something you can grab hold of and beat up, but you can use them so often in your writing that the person reading your book is traumatized to the point that he wants to throw it across the room. Seriously? Adverbs can traumatize?
Do an experiment. Create a character that uses -ly adverbs with every sentence spoken. Now have that character describe his excursion through a dark and scary cave. The results can be funny, yes, but imagine a book where -ly adverbs are used in every sentence. Would you read such a book the entire way through?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that adverbs are awesome. There are times they can modify verbs or adjectives in such a way that what you mean comes through loud and clear. This is not always the case.
I once edited a story that gave me nightmares. Was the writing that bad? No, but adverb abuse was rampant. Not only were there way too many adverbs used, but it was like the author reached into a grab bag of adverbs to decide which one to use. Handfuls would be scattered throughout each page. An action would always be done slowly, suddenly, quickly, or immediately.
What an Adverb Does
Adverbs are like salt. They should be used to season a story. Use too many of them, and the story is unpalatable. Use just the right amount, and the story is perfectly seasoned.
Adverbs modify verbs. They can also modify adjectives or other adverbs. Most adverbs end in -ly, but there are many that don’t. They tell us when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent an action is performed.
When used sparingly and the right way, adverbs can be awesome. An adverb has the ability to add meaning to a verb or adjective. If the adverb you want to use does this, that is great. Before using an –ly adverb, you need to ask yourself if there is a better way the description can be worded without the use of one.
Questions to Ask Before Using an Adverb
Is your adverb redundant? Is it only repeating the action of the verb?
Do you use adverbs in your dialogue tags? Would your dialogue tag be better said in a way that doesn’t use an adverb? Do you even need a dialogue tag?
Are your verbs weak? If you make them stronger, can you skip the adverb?
Too Many Adverbs
The use of too many adverbs shows that the author is a weak writer and doesn’t want to take the time or make the effort to describe what is going on.
When you do use an adverb, make sure you use it correctly. Slowly grabbed does not make sense. When something is grabbed, it is done with haste.
quickly – When something is done quickly, it is done very fast, it is done without hesitation. So why does this particular adverb annoy me so much?
The dog ran quickly across the yard. – Let me ask you something. Is there any other way to run? I know, some people don’t run fast. They jog. So you can say the person jogged. Using “quickly” to modify “run” is unnecessary.
Debbie quickly filed for divorce. – Okay, so she didn’t waste any time filing for divorce. The sentences leading up to that should convey the reasons why she filed and the length of time it took. Again, “quickly” is unnecessary.
suddenly – This word is meant to convey surprise. Many writers use it to astonish the reader and show how fast something happens. Instead of using the word “suddenly”, why not just describe what happens? That is much more effective, and it pulls the reader into the story.
Suddenly the chandelier fell from the ceiling. – That is a correct sentence. Now ask yourself, what occurred in the sentences leading up to this happening? What was the atmosphere in the room? Were there people present? If so, what were they doing?
Classical music floated through the crowded ballroom. During the song’s crescendo and in perfect time with the music, the chandelier’s chain broke. The decorative light crashed to the floor, pieces of it flying in every direction.
Words That Can be Used Instead of Adverbs
I give only a few examples below of words you can use instead of adverbs in your writing. Try to come up with your own unique way of saying things.
before any more time passed
This one isn’t an –ly adverb, but it is overused. Many times this word can just be left out, and two sentences used to state what is going on. It is easy to fall into the habit of using this word to announce what is happening, but that is something you want to try to avoid doing.
Very has been described as the most useless word in the English language. Using this word is a sign of laziness. There is always a stronger way of saying what you intend.
Instead of saying very tired, you could say exhausted.
Instead of saying very hungry, you could say ravenous.
Instead of saying very clean, you could say spotless.
And the list goes on and on.
without wasting any time
The hands on the clock moved slowly.
Or you could say: Her sense of timing was going in slow motion. Each second that passed on the old grandfather clock, lasted at least a full minute.
without making any noise
The silence was so thick that a knife could cut shapes out of it.
This is another one that is used far too often. It seemed as though the other team was going to win.
How about saying: Defeat was written for the home team in the blazing numbers on the scoreboard. The visiting team was so far ahead that the home team scoring enough to beat them during the last few seconds of the game was out of the question.
Don’t ban adverbs from your writing, but do your best to use them only when necessary. Your writing will be stronger, and your readers will appreciate it.