The popular mantra in the world of fiction writing is pretty much this: Never ever use an adverb ever.
While I’m certainly no fan of these dangerous little modifying words, I’m not sure why they are considered by many to be the words of the devil himself. Perhaps it has something to do with Stephen King and his awesome book On Writing which came out over a decade ago, but still influences a large number of writers today, myself included.
In that book, King literally decries adverbs in a quote that has been made into a writing meme by like a million people:
The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.
So why are these things so bad, especially when lots of extremely successful authors (cough…J.K. Rowling…cough) use an excessive amount of adverbs in their novels?
Well, to answer that, allow me to put on my editor hat. At Theme of Absence, there have been plenty of stories I’ve rejected due to an overuse of adverbs. My biggest problem with adverbs is that, when overused, they become a crutch for the writers to use to avoid writing more descriptively. Unfortunately, this leads to telling instead of showing. After all, why should a writer bother describing how a character “tip-toed toward the door, holding his breath to avoid being heard,” when he can just tell us that the character walked quietly?
It might be okay sometimes, but it can’t be done too much.
Another problem with using too many adverbs is that they can take the reader out of the story as soon as that reader starts noticing them. A person can only read the phrase “He said loudly” so many times before said reader loudly slams the book shut and moves on.
So what do we do about it?
Okay, if you’re still with me, and agree that it’s bad form to fill your story with adverbs, then what is the alternative?
Well, as I alluded to above, the key is (always!) to show, don’t tell. Go through your manuscript and look for every one of those -ly words accompanying a verb. You’ve got a couple of ways to rid your writing of this things.
The easiest way is to simply replace the verb-adverb pair with a more descriptive verb. For example, “Sally said quietly” could be rewritten as “Sally whispered.”
It’s worth mentioning, however, that this might not always work, as sometimes it could change the meaning of the verb. You wouldn’t want to rewrite “quickly walked” as “ran” because running is different than walking fast. So use your best judgment.
The better–and more difficult–way to eliminate some adverbs from your story is to expand the verb and use more descriptive phrasing. Don’t tell us that your character smiled sadly. Show your character holding back tears, trying to ignore the sorrows and remember the good things, as he forces a smile.
And I know this stuff is hard. I’ve been a perpetrator in the crime of using too many adverbs for a lot of my writing life as well. But if you can practice finding and replacing these things (seek and destroy, if you will) it will help your writing and make you a better writer.
Thanks for reading and feel free to share some of your thoughts on adverbs in the comments section.