Friday, February 29, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Adverbs

Always, carefully use adverbs sparingly and cautiously.

I used to use adverbs more easily (there's another one!) before a certain editor came along and cleaned 'em up. In my first four published books, you'll find a lot more of them than in my later books.

First, a quick grammar reminder. Adverbs don't always end in ly. They tend to when they're modifying a verb. But adverbs can also modify an adjective--The new 2008 Corvette is a very fast car. Or they can modify another adverb--She moved quite painstakingly.

In all cases, they're needed a lot less than writers will tend to want to use them. The ly versions seem to especially stand out.

This "rule" really isn't all that hard. If you want to use an adverb in your draft, I encourage you first to rethink it. Can you find a more compelling verb to use rather than tacking on an adverb to a more common verb? If you can't, then use the adverb. But in editing, give it a second, even harder look. Is this absolutely the strongest way to write the sentence? Can you strengthen it by replacing the adverb?

Like head-hopping POV, too many adverbs can look like lazy writing.

Even though said editor mentioned above is no longer my editor, every time I consider an adverb I imagine her looking at it and growling. Now, she never growled if it was really needed. But I just wanted to make danged sure it was, or she'd flag it.

Looking back at adverbs in my earlier books, I now see hardly a one of them is needed. Here are a few sentences:

Now, cruising quietly through the night, I still found it illogical.

The scene is about the character by herself, at night. No need for quietly. And without it, the rhythm of the sentence improves.

I smiled at him briefly. Slowly he smiled back.

Agh, two in a row! I might keep the second one here. The male character is shy in her presence, and the adverb does help show his reticence. But am I properly showing his reticence in other ways? My guess is, on the final edit, I'd nix the adverb and strengthen the sentence another way if necessary.

I gazed at her, fervently wishing my answer could be yes.

Nope. Nix it. You might argue that fervently wishing is more than just so-so wishing. But the context of the scene shows that everything the character is thinking and saying is fervent. And that is the key to the "rule" of being cautious with the use of adverbs. We can too easily believe that sticking one or two of them in a paragraph is enough to heighten the emotion, and therefore not use enough action beats, body language, vocal inflection, crackling dialogue, etc. Write your paragraph using those well, and the need for adverbs is negated most of the time.

Read Part 4


Pam Halter said...

I think this is the hardest rule to follow because we tend to talk with adverbs, and we most always exaggerate. I told him a million times! I was so mad, I lost my mind! I was so scared, I wet myself.

Did we actually do any of these things? Probably not, but we like to reinforce the feeling so that the listener understands better. Or so that we get more sympathy. Or invoke a stronger reaction.

Richard Mabry said...

Cutting out adverbs is like cutting out chocolate. It's a good thing, but hard to do. So very, very, very hard. (Now I've used up my adverbs for the day, so I can return to writing).

meliaka said...

Ecellent point! I love my adverbs but when one of my crit partners -- the Adverb Advenger, LOL -- started pointing them out, I realize now how much more vibrant a story becomes using stronger verbs. But I'd be lying to say it didn't hurt... and I probably felt like chunking a few tomatoes from time to time. But each of us in the crit group come prepared with steel toed boots and hazmat suits. We can both take it and sling it, LOL. Thanks for taking the time to address these rules. I look forward to reading them.

Okay, now ducking back into lurkdome.... *g*

Patricia W. said...

Darn those grade school teachers who encouraged a liberal use of adverbs!

This may be the best post I've seen on the subject. Straightforward and easy to understand.

Melanie said...

Mark Twain wasn't a fan of adverbs or adjectives. I love the following quote:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
- Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

Lewis Bae said...

Thank you for sharing these rules. They're great help to me, sometimes I don't realize I use too much adverbs in my sentences. Great tip for writers!

Jeffrey said...

My most excited experiences have been slathering in the adverbs, but my most self-revealing satisfaction has been cutting them out. At some point, the more that comes out, the healthier and sexier the patient being treated seems to become. In a frenzy of cutting adverbs and descriptors, I suddenly imagine I am Michelangelo freeing the Form from the stone, cutting, polishing, watching the true message reveal itself :)

Nancy Jill Thames, Author THE JILLIAN BRADLEY MYSTERY SERIES said...

Thank you for your opening my eyes to one of my weaknesses in writing. I will use spell check to find the little devils and weed them out!

Nancy Jill Thames, Author