I’ve been planning this post for a few weeks now, but it required help from others so I had to delay it until after RWA. One of the things writers and editors sometimes talk about is the overuse of adverbs. But let’s start with this. Adverbs aren’t all bad.
No really, they’re not. Some people say adverbs like a four letter word, but adverbs serve an important function in a sentence, answering a question for the reader of how, where or when something was done (as well as how much, how often and a few others). And sometimes adverbs (the conjunctive kind) help glue a sentence together. If you’re in word count crunch (too many words, not enough space) an adverb can serve in a pinch (of course, that works opposite, sometimes you can ditch the adverb and rewrite to add word count). So if I think adverbs have an important function, then why doesn’t your editor (critique partner, author buddy, etc) like adverbs? To that I’d reply that it’s not the adverbs they dislike, but the overuse of them. Too many adverbs can weaken the writing and cheat your reader of a richer, more visual reading experience because the use of adverbs which are wholly subjective in the mind of each individual reader because they don’t give
To start, we’ll just talk briefly on how to recognize an adverb; however, I will try to be as thorough as possible. I used one in that sentence and I’m sure you picked up on it (briefly) but did you recognize however as an adverb (it’s a conjunctive adverb but we’re not really going to talk about those, I was just showing off). Many people use -ly as the yardstick for finding adverbs, and while it’s probably true that those are the most common offenders (and the most easily recognized), not all adverbs end in -ly and not all words ending in -ly are adverbs. Confused yet?
In my research for this post (to make sure I didn’t mess things up completely) I found a source that said the most common adverbs are not, very, and too. Eep! None of them even end in -ly! What’s a new writer to do, trying to figure out if they’re writing with too many adverbs? I don’t think there’s any easy answer to that, many people just look for the words that end in -ly, but then you’re missing all the other garbage words, the subjective ones that only have meaning to you (such as very, too, quite and others). My suggestion is to look at your sentences. Is your writing tight? Are you using descriptive words or subjective words? How are you answering the questions of how something was done, where something was done or when something was done?
Is your writing tight?
Example: She whispered quietly.
Is there any other way to whisper? Sometimes that adverb is modifying an already descriptive verb.
Example: He sang loudly.
Instead you could say: He belted out the song. Sometimes you don’t need the adverb at all if you use a descriptive verb instead.
Are you using descriptive or subjective words?
Example:It was very cold.
Hmm…that could be any degree of cold from 40 degrees above Fahrenheit to 60 degrees below. I grew up in North Dakota. I now live in Maryland. People here think it gets very cold all winter. I think the climate is moderate. How does your reader know what you think is very cold?
How are you answering the questions of how something was done, where something was done or when something was done?
Example: Recently, she was seen here, slowly walking.
When? Recently. Where? Here. How? Slowly. The picture of that is clear as mud, don’t you think? Recently could have been in the past few minutes or the past year, depending on your point of view. She was here, but do you know where here was? It could be that exact spot, that general location or an even larger geographical area. And she moved slowly which could mean at a snail’s pace or a 25 mph down a 55mph road.
Rather than bore you all with a bunch of further pontificating on the subject, I decided to do a short demonstration. My friend and the fabulous author, Shannon Stacey, helped me out by writing a paragraph rather littered with adverbs (easily recognized, I think). She attempted to make it “not suck” while still showing an overuse of adverbs. Of course, since this is a demonstration, it’s a bit dramaticized (is that a word?) with the overuse. One would hope that no one actually uses quite this many adverbs in one shot. I then took the example paragraph and asked Shannon, and two other authors, Cheyenne McCray and Jaci Burton (I also asked JR Ward but she’d just had her wisdom teeth pulled and was feeling pitiful, poor thing) to rewrite it, using stronger wording. The results are fun.
Shannon’s original paragraph:
“They’re coming,” Marissa whispered urgently. The team rapidly checked their weapons again, then ran quickly down the corridor to the escape hatch door. By listening intently, she could make out the sounds of the aliens loudly chasing after them. They weren’t all going to make it out, she thought sadly. It took time to completely power up the emergency pod, and time they definitely didn’t have. Somebody would have to voluntarily stay behind and bravely cover them.
“They’re coming,” Marissa warned. The team did another quick weapons check, then sprinted down the corridor to the escape hatch door. Straining to hear, she could make out the sounds of the aliens crashing toward them. They weren’t all going to make it out, she rued. It took time to power up the emergency pod—time they didn’t have. Time to draw straws.
Rewrite by Cheyenne MCray, Seduced by Magic available from St. Martin’s, October 3, 2006:
Marissa’s heart beat a rapid staccato against her breastbone. She kept her voice low as she whispered, “They’re here.”
She glanced over her shoulder to see her team check their weapons with smooth efficiency and precision. The moment they were prepared, Marissa and her team moved with stealth and speed down the corridor to the escape hatch door.
The aliens’ footsteps echoed throughout the corridor as they gained on Marissa and her team. Shit. With the aliens so close on their tails, Marissa knew they weren’t all going to make it. The time it took to power up the emergency pod was precious time they couldn’t afford. Her gut clenched and bile rose up in her throat at the thought that someone would have to stay behind to cover the rest of the team.
It had to be her. Marissa sucked up her courage. She couldn’t allow any of her team members to be killed. But, by the gods she’d go down fighting.
“They’re coming.” Marissa’s warning was an urgent whisper to her crew, signaling their need for immediate movement. The team did a quick check of their weapons again, then charged down the corridor to the escape hatch door. The pounding of alien footsteps vibrated down the hallway toward them. They were close.
Sadness enveloped her in a cloud of dark finality. They weren’t going to make it out. It took too much time to power up the emergency pod—time they didn’t have. She was going to have to ask one brave soul to volunteer to stay behind and cover them.
Thanks so much to Jaci, Shannon and Cheyenne for helping me out!
To wrap it up, I’ll just reiterate that adverbs aren’t all bad. They do serve an important function and, used in moderation, can have impact and read well. The idea is to make sure that your adverbs (your entire sentence) is creating a visual image that your reader can get, not have to guess at, and that your writing is tight, because that will often mark a good author from a great author.