5. Fiction Crimes Part 1: Overusing Adverbs

Author: Nola Published: about 3 years ago.
Tags: fiction, adverbs, editing, description Category: Writing tips

I merrily used adverbs until doing a creative writing course. Then I realised they were really bad. Whoops, I’ve already used two adverbs. So what are adverbs and why are they causing angst in the writing community?

Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or parts of sentences. They usually end in ‘ly’ or ‘ily’, but there are exceptions (e.g. very, rather, somewhat). They seem harmless enough, but writers like Mary Jaksch have argued we should shoot them on sight. (Shh … don’t tell Mary about the literary crime I committed in my first two sentences).

There is still a place for adverbs. Sometimes an adverb is the best word or adds an important nuance of meaning. However, they can also be poor substitutes for clearer writing and are often unnecessary. Amy Rose Davis cautions against three adverbial sins: dialogue tags, weak verb modifiers, and intensifiers. Here are some examples.

Example 1: ‘What do you mean?’ Sally said angrily.

The dialogue tells us Sally is angry, but we don’t know what that looks like. We could show the reader more by saying:

Sally spun around and glared at him. ‘What do you mean?’

I’ll talk more about showing rather than telling in next week’s fiction crime.

Example 2: ‘Gavin threw the ball forcefully.’

In this case, we could do away with the adverb by using a more specific verb (e.g. ‘Gavin hurled the ball’). Next time you’re tempted to insert an adverb, see if you can replace it with a stronger verb: ‘She whispered’ instead of ‘she talked quietly’; ‘he concentrated’ instead of ‘he focused intently’. You might find a thesaurus helpful, but be careful not to create another problem by peppering your work with obscure words that will frustrate your reader.

Example 3: ‘It was absolutely ridiculous’.

Davis notes that these types of words (e.g. completely, rather, really, very) are often redundant because the sentence still makes sense without them. In the above example, does ‘absolutely ridiculous’ tell us anything more than ‘ridiculous’? If the shade of meaning is important, maybe leave it in. After all, the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous might not have the same panache if called Fabulous. The point is whether you’re overusing adverbs when you could be writing more precisely or tightly. Whoops, I’ve just dropped another two!

Jaksch gives a great tip for improving your writing: ‘… take a piece you’ve written and highlight all adverbs. Then try to delete as many as possible.’ I would add that you might be able to find stronger verbs or better descriptions for some of the ones you think are necessary.

If you’d like to read a short amusing story I’ve written on the plight of the adverb, you can find it here. For more information about the pros and cons of adverbs, you might like to read the articles by Amy Rose Davis and Mary Jaksch. Happy adverb culling!

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Posted about 3 years ago by Jeanette O'Hagan

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