Writing smell: adverb fever

WritingWide

When we write we want to be precise. However, using a lot of adverbs does not make your writing precise, it makes it weak. This is important to be aware of, even if you only write e-mails to friends. So, today, in the series of writing smells, adverb fever.

What is adverb fever?

Adverbs are the words you attach to your verbs to modify them. They usually end in –ly. Here is an example, with the adverb in bold:

John softly said to her that he loved her.

Adverbs are a very useful part of the English language. They allow you to add flavour or nuance to verbs. They are also easily abused.

In some cases, the adverb is useful, in other, it’s just the writer being afraid of letting the verb do the heavy lifting in a sentence. The problem is that they weaken the sentences they are used in. The sentence becomes longer and more complex, while only adding a little information.  The adverb comes with a price, and if that price is higher than its added value, it shouldn’t be there. Balancing this price against the value is a matter of experience and style.

Some examples

Whether a specific adverb is too much is debatable, but there are some blatant examples of adverb fever such as the following:

Drat,’ John cursed very angrily.

John firmly closed the door.

I hate you,’ he said very loudly.

And the list goes on from here. You get the idea. The above are examples of adverbs you may not need. Let’s take a look at a couple that make more sense:

I went to the vet yesterday.

“I’m quite happy,” John said.

Like I said, I’m not against all adverbs. Some people are. Stephen King compared adverbs to dandelions in his On Writing (which is a great book, by the way). If there’s one in your lawn, it looks pretty, but if you leave it there, you’ll soon have a lawn covered in dandelions, and then it’s not pretty any more. That’s why he’s against adverbs in general. I’m not that extreme, but since he’s a bestselling author, and I haven’t sold two words, you might want to listen to him over me.

How to fix adverb fever

First, check all adverbs and see if you really need them. The first example doesn’t lose anything if you change it to:

Drat,’ John cursed.

Like I said, I think removing all adverbs all the time goes too far, but a lot of them are superfluous. It’s interesting to see what happens to your story if you do remove all adverbs. So, as an exercise you might want to take your story, make a copy, then remove all adverbs and read it.

Does it still work? How many did you put back afterwards? Not all of them, I bet.

Secondly, the adverb sometimes hides a place where you can show instead of tell. In the second example, John is ‘firmly’ closing a door. Have you ever done this? I actually have, my living room door doesn’t shut properly, and I have to pull it closed hard to make it stay shut for the entire night. If I forget, my cats get out of the room. So, this second example is not completely superfluous, but it’s wasting an opportunity for some characterization:

John closed the door. He pulled it again to make sure it was shut properly. Wouldn’t want the cats to get out.

If you still feel some adverbs really can’t go, take a third look. Some adverbs are actually a sign that you are using the wrong verb. In the third example, we can remove the ‘very loudly’, but all we’re left with is ‘he said’, so we can’t remove it. Hold on, ‘saying something loudly’ is a bad way to describe somebody ‘shouted’:

I hate you,’ he shouted.

Better, isn’t it?

Conclusion

Adverbs are not bad writing per se, but over-using them is. When you edit your work, check each one to see if you really need it, and if you can’t find a better way to describe the same thing.

Happy writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands