Thursday, November 15, 2012

Adverbs: Help or Hurt?

Today I want to focus on two ways adverbs hurt writing instead of helping. How do we structure sentences to avoid unnecessary phrasing and descriptions, but still keep a story strong visually to the reader? One of the first things that came to mind when I considered this subject was the use of adverbs. My personal view on writing is to keep my words from intefering with the story, and that usually requires keeping things as simple as possible.

First, for those who haven't had a grammar class in a while, I'll define an adverb. Adverbs are words that describes or modifies a noun, verb, or adverb. They're describing words.

But do we need them? Of course we do, to some extent. Adverbs do have their place, like when you want to describe a noun. Will a reader 'see' a character better if I say they are wearing dirty jeans and a ripped hoodie than if I said they are wearing jeans and a hoodie? Yes. Dirty and ripped there describe the clothing and give the character a very different appearance. If I need to show that my character is homeless, that description helps.

When writing fiction, we try to create a picture for the readers. For that we need adverbs. It is hard to write anything without them. It is easy add useless adverbs without realizing it, though. Take a look at my first paragraph. 'Unnecessary' 'first' 'personal' 'usually' are all adverbs. The trick comes from deciding what type of adverbs are useful and which ones are not. Are the adverbs I used words necessary? Some are but one that I pointed out is not. Can you find it?

I'll show you the way I reason through sentences with adverbs I'm questioning. Do I need unnecessary to describe phrasing and descriptions? Well, since I want to point out that they don't need to be used, sure. However, did I need 'personal' in front of view? If I take it out, you still see that it is 'my view', so you have to know that its personal, right? In that sentence personal is an adverb I could remove.

Those are subtle uses of adverbs that writers need to consider removing, especially when writing stories with word limits. Some are easy to spot, like icy cold, steaming hot, running swiftly. Others, like my personal view, are not quite as easy to pick out but are just as redundant. These should be eliminated as much as possible.

Another type of adverb to avoid are those that tend to spring up around verbs. Often, they are words like very, typically, carefully, always, just, often, etc... Most of the time, they're not necessary. Other times, they make a phrase clunky or wordy, when changing the verb would work.


Redundant adverb:
She always gets a coffee at 3 PM every day or She gets a coffee at 3 PM every day.
  If she gets the coffee every day at 3 pm, do we really need always there?

The noisy fan's constant squeaking drove her nuts or The fan's constant squeaking drove her nuts.  
   Do we need noisy to describe the fan when we then describe the noise it is making?

Verb changing adverb:
He reaches quickly for falling stack of books or He lunges for the falling stack of books.
    Here, a more descriptive verb for the movement eliminates the need to use the adverb.

Amused by her comment, he just gives her a smile or Amused by her comment, he smiles.
    Using just gives really isn't necessary when you could change the action to smiling.

He softly walks into the room, trying not to wake his sleeping wife or He tiptoes into the room, trying not to wake his wife.
    Here, tiptoeing describes the walking and if he doesn't want to wake her she is obviously sleeping so that word can be removed.


  1. Great examples! When I write a rough draft, I don't even watch what I'm typing down, but when I edit, I go right for the adverbs. Like you said, sometimes they're needed, but it's goo to comb through and decide whether the adverb adds information to the sentence, or whether it's redundant.

    I'm always on the lookout for stronger verbs that can be used in place of an adverb (love your example of tiptoe vs softly walk -- tiptoe captures the action much more clearly).

    Thanks for stopping by my blog -- just returned your follow :)

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the writing tip, thanks for following back!


Please feel free to comment about my stories or blog. Flamers will be laughed at!