I love beta reading a good story, and I’ve done a lot of it in the past year. From the first page of a story, I can tell a new writer from one that’s more experienced by a handful of things I read. One of them is adverb use.
I think everyone knows what an adverb is…but as a refresher, it’s a word used to modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Usually it is a descriptor clarifying How, How Often, When, or Where. What does that mean? Many adverbs don’t end in the hallmark -ly, but most of them do, like happily, softly, quickly, etc. that changes the meaning of the verb. Examples:
- spoke softly
- walked quietly
- Easily avoided a punch
- Quickly ran away
- Deadly gaze
So, what’s wrong with adverbs? While I’m reading, these -ly adverbs makes my brain halt while I change my perception of the verb being modified. I lose imagery of the story while I wonder exactly what does the change mean. In the examples above:
- spoke softly (I wonder what does it mean to speak softly. Is the character whispering? Did his/her voice drop an octave?)
- walked quietly (How is that accomplished? Tiptoed? Sneaked? Took off shoes?)
- Easily avoided a punch (I can’t picture this? Did the character sway out of the way? Drop to the floor? Blocked it some how?)
- Quickly ran away (Doesn’t running mean quickly? Otherwise it’d be called walking. If it’s faster than a regular run, then sprinted away would work.)
- Deadly gaze (What is a deadly gaze? Drool? Teeth barred? Wrinkled eyebrows? Piercing eyes?)
My writing tip: Cut adverbs whenever possible. If you can replace the verb with a more descriptive/powerful verb, your readers will thank you. Here’s some stronger verb ideas to replace the simple word “walked”: (For a bigger list of 195 different verbs to spice up your writing, check out Jerry Jenkin’s site HERE)
See how the words immediately give you a mental visual? A clearer one than “walked loudly” or “carefully walked” would?
Why do newer writers add excessive adverbs? I’m guilty of this too. Years ago, I remember thinking that to make a well-crafted story, I needed to add more descriptors to my writing. Adverbs are easy descriptors. Describing what happens in detail takes more skill. I still use them in my first draft or two, but before putting a final draft to beta readers, I spend the time and energy to remove as many of them as I can.
Two ways I fix my own writing:
- I use http://www.prowritingaid.com as a tool to identify adverb use. I find it works best when a 3000 word chunk of text is fed through it, rather than an entire document. (You may be under the limit of “acceptable adverbs” in an entire document, but still have sections that have too many adverbs in the same place.) Also, just because it says adverb use is within normal range, it doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t cut them more.
- I sometimes just search for -ly words and begin the painful task of deciding if it can be cut out without changing the meaning of the sentence or if I need a stronger verb. I also have a list of those other adverbs I use to much. “Just” is a BIG one for me.
Here’s a reference on adverbs, said much better than I could ever do from Stephen King.
I’m not a writing expert and still choose to use some adverbs in my writing. I do it all the time…I love saying truly, really, and actually to name a few. Honestly, I think there is a place for adverbs — sometime. (Did you notice my adverbs in that sentence?)
I challenge you to take a look at your words ending in -ly and cut them out. As many as possible. Your readers will thank you.