Let me tell you a story of last time I submitted a few chapters of my novel to my workshop group. Group members could print it out for margin notes if they wanted to, which is nice because it’s a great way to point out specific words or sentences that tripped up your reader. When one of my group members handed back my printed out draft, every adverb was crossed out. Every single one. She wanted me to scrap every single adverb ending in –ly.
And she’s not the first writer to have this viewpoint. I’ve heard it said that you can sometimes—sometimes—get away with adverb usage when you use it sparingly. Like once every 1,000 words, I think they said. Even then you’re on thin ice. Adverbs are just plain lazy writing, they said.
For those of you who don’t keep track of all those silly grammar terms, adverbs are modifiers for your verbs, usually ending in –ly. (loudly, roughly, angrily, suddenly, really)
So, is it true? Are adverbs the devil? Certainly not. In fact, some adverbs are really nice. I don’t think there should be an ultimatums in writing (all adverbs are evil!), because a lot of that chalks down to writing style and voice. Adverbs can be good in moderation.
Why people hate on –ly words:
They can be lazy writing. Some writers rely on adverbs rather than look for a better-fitting word, which makes them a favorite for lazy writers. Second, when it comes to show don’t tell, adverbs tend towards the tell side. And third, adverbs can clog up your writing with wordiness.
“Why do you have to be so mean?” he asked quietly.
“We don’t have time to talk about this,” I snapped back angrily.
He sadly hung his head. “We never have time to talk about this.”
Please tell me that made you cringe. It’s wordy, it’s repetitive, and it’s telling everything. This is, quite obviously, a good show of bad adverb usage.
- Wordy: Here’s a writing pro-tip: the fewer words you have, the more weight your remaining words hold. If you can cut word(s) and have the sentence keep the same meaning, do it.
- Repetitive: Hand in hand with wordiness, you don’t want to repeat yourself. Your readers are smart. They can figure things out. If someone’s yelling, we know they’re angry. You don’t need to say “she yelled angrily.” You don’t need to say “he cried sadly.”
- Telling: It says right there in the dialogue tags that she’s angry and he’s sad. We have been told their emotions, rather than seeing it in their actions. Instead of “he said angrily,” try for “he snapped” or “he yelled.”
“Why do you have to be so mean?” he asked.
“We don’t have time to talk about this,” I snapped back.
He hung his head. “We never have time to talk about this.”
All I did was remove the –ly words. And look! It’s a thousand times better. This is why people hate on adverbs. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary and should be cut, simple as that. But I think it’s equally lazy to condemn all adverbs as worthless without giving the poor guys a chance. So when you’re looking through your document’s adverbs, ask yourself at each one: “Is this necessary?” Try cutting out the adverb. Read the sentence. Does the meaning change in a bad way, good way, or not at all?
Why you shouldn’t hate on –ly words:
We use modifiers all the time in everyday conversation, so why can’t your character? As long as you don’t go overboard, adverbs can make your characters sound like people, while absolutely no adverbs might make them sound like robots. It’s just part of a realistic dialogue. Of course, not every line of dialogue should have one. But try speaking it out loud and see if it feels natural in your mouth.
One little adverb can lean your character’s tone in a certain direction.
- “It’s definitely more fun at night.” (adverb adds excitement)
- “Trust me, they’re probably ideas I already have.” (adverb makes it more teasingly flirtatious than seriously flirtatious/creepy)
- “Ghosts always have been real, along with a whole manner of creatures this so called ‘modern’ world has apparently forgotten. Standards have gone down, haven’t they?” (adverb highlights the speaker’s arrogance and dismissiveness towards others who don’t know as much as him)
Adverbs can be part of your character’s voice. On top of adding that human quality, they can be like little flavoring words to bring out your character’s feelings towards certain things. They’re also good for an ironic voice, I’ve realized.
- Damn. I exhaled heavily. My fault? Really?
- He’d already demonstrated his knack for things questionably legal.
- He seemed perfectly at ease in a place full of dead people.
- I’d have to weigh it against sitting in a room with enough lawyers to fix a light bulb and two embarrassingly overdramatic parents yelling over my head.
- If he was, in fact, the strongest, because I couldn’t exactly cross-reference his information.
Of course, all of these examples would be better in context, but I don’t want to paste huge paragraphs of text into this. Basically, these were all adverbs that girl from my writing group told me to cut. Some of her suggestions I agreed with, so I did cut down on my adverb count. But all of the above examples she saw as unnecessary, while I disagree—I see them as part of my characters’ voices. They add to the story, the character, the tone.
So read through the examples—out loud, if you want. Read with the adverb, and then without. Listen for the change in tone and meaning. Then do a ctrl-f in your story doc for “-ly” and do the same thing. You will find adverbs that are unnecessary, but some of them you’ll find you need to keep! And that’s fine. Keep them.