Recently, the advice that authors should never, ever use adverbs has been going around on social media. It’s sometimes hard to tell who is serious and who’s merely stoking the furor (here’s looking at you, “I only use one adverb per book”). The unfortunate reality, though, is that this kind of talk can scare writers, both new and old.
You wring your hands. You look at your manuscript. Are you guilty of the writing “sin” of using adverbs in your writing?
Here at Inkwell’s, we like to take a more middle-of-the-road approach. We agree that in a lot of cases, you can probably do without the adverb. To understand why you might need to keep some, though, we need to look at what adverbs are and what they do.
What Is an Adverb?
An adverb is similar to an adjective. You might remember adjectives as the class of words that describe nouns: tall, pretty, green, and so on.
Adverbs are also modifiers. The difference is they don’t describe nouns. Instead, you use adverbs to describe verbs.
Not all adverbs end in –ly though; not every word that ends in –ly is an adverb. And, English being English, some words do double duty as an adverb in some contexts and other parts of speech in another context.
How Adverbs Drag You Down
I’m not sure if Stephen King started the war on adverbs, but he popularized it in his book On Writing. In it, he challenges writers to ditch adverbs. He says adverbs only drag your writing down.
He has a very good point with this. In many, many cases, there’s a better word to use. Instead of saying someone “ran swiftly,” you can use a verb like darted, dashed, or even sprinted. All of those words indicate exactly how someone was running, without the use of the extra word.
This is often repeated as the idea “use strong verbs.” Ran is a decent enough verb, but sprinted is stronger. It does more heavy lifting, because it tells you more about how the action was completed. Using strong verbs helps you vary your vocabulary and it aids with precision, clarity, and conciseness.
A Common Culprit: Said
One of the most common places to find adverbs is in dialogue tags. There’s a reason a lot of people will tell you said is a “dead word.” People often have an over-reliance on it.
Said is a perfectly good word, but it becomes tedious when we use it too much. The reader gets bored. And, in a lot of cases, it encourages the writer to “spruce it up” with the addition of adverbs.
Consider this example:
“There’s no way I’m leaving without you,” he said angrily. “You have to!” she said loudly.
Said is a pretty dull word choice in both of these sentences. Watch what happens when we switch it out:
“There’s no way I’m leaving without you,” he shouted.
“You have to!” she cried.
“There’s no way I’m leaving without you,” he growled.
“You have to!” she begged.
Mixing up the word choice here gives the reader a better sense of the characters’ inner worlds. Is our heroine begging or crying? Is our hero shouting at her from across the way, or is he holding her close? Any of these words give us more information than said on its own can.
That’s why we’re tempted to add adverbs to “weak” verbs like said or ran. We’re trying to convey more information, but we’d be better off picking a different word altogether.
Sometimes, You Just Need an Adverb
Sometimes, only an adverb will do the trick. Only is often a good example. It can be difficult to replace it; the words we usually reach for are also adverbs, such as merely, solely, or exclusively.
Just is another good example. Yes, people go after the word just as “hedging” or being “weak,” but sometimes, you just need a good just in your sentence. No other word will do.
Think about the previous sentence. Only and just are sometimes synonyms. What happens if we swap only in?
Sometimes, you only need a good just in your sentence.
It doesn’t have the same emphasis, does it? What if we lost the adverb altogether?
Sometimes, you need a good just in your sentence.
All right—that’s better than only. You could make the argument that the just is unnecessary and we’re better off without it. But taking it out subtly changes the meaning here. You don’t “just” need it. You need it.
Some might argue that’s splitting hairs, but really, that’s what editors do. We sweat the small stuff, as one author likes to say. And it’s true—the difference between “needing” something and “just needing” something may seem minuscule, but the two are worlds apart.
How about quite? Yes, in many cases, it’s not strictly necessary but there’s a marked difference between saying “I’m not quite finished” and “I’m not finished.”
As noted before, a lot of people recognize adverbs when they appear in –ly format. They may not recognize other adverbs, like quite, or they may not realize they’re using a word as an adverb. I personally give anyone who says they only use one adverb per book some side eye. That’s either a joke or you don’t know what an adverb looks like, in my humble opinion.
Grammar Extremism Is Silly
“I only use one adverb per book” or “never use adverbs” are what we like to call cases of grammar extremism. While it’s good to bone up on your grammar, rules are also meant to be broken. In some cases, breaking the so-called rules makes for better writing.
Grammar extremism sometimes results in us twisting around in all sorts of unnatural ways to avoid a “rule.” If we’re hellbent on excising adverbs, for example, we may stop using just and only, even in their adjective forms, because we’re having a hard time telling the difference between adjective and adverb.
Other examples of grammar extremism result in nonsense like never splitting infinitives or never ending a sentence with a preposition. English speakers do this all the time; if you never do it in your writing, you’re going to end up with some unnatural constructions. In these cases, it’s better to bend the rules a bit.
The same is true of adverbs. As a general rule, it’s helpful to think about using fewer adverbs and more strong verbs. Asking yourself if you can use a different word and axe an adverb is almost never a bad thing.
At the same point in time, words like said and ran are still okay to use. And yes, you’re probably going to end up using the odd adverb here and there.
The key to this is balance. You don’t want every action described with an adverb. At the same time, never using an adverb isn’t a realistic goal either. After all, people use adverbs in day-to-day speech all the time. If we didn’t need adverbs, to some extent, they probably wouldn’t exist.
Get Help Improving Your Writing
Writers, relax. You don’t need to excise every adverb in your manuscript. Some prudent paring can help you trim back on them, strengthen your writing, and make your story sing.
Ready to work with a partner who can help you hunt down pesky adverbs or otherwise improve your writing? Get in touch with the Inkwell’s team. We’re here to help!