P.S.: Janice is hunkering down during the hurricane, so she may not immediately be able to answer comments, but will as soon as she can!
You’ve no doubt heard it over and over: Never use adverbs in your writing. Sound advice, but if you follow it to the extreme, you could miss out on their very useful properties.
As bad a reputation as adverbs have, they’re handy during a first draft. They allow you to jot down how a character feels or how they say something without losing your momentum. You can keep writing, and go back and revise later.
They’re also wonderfully helpful red flags that point out opportunities to revise and flesh out what your character is doing. They’re like your brain telling you about the emotional state of your character, and pointing out a place you might want to examine further.
- I walked cautiously across the room to the back door.
Here, “cautiously” is doing the explaining, telling that this person is nervous in some way. You could find another word for “walked cautiously” like tiptoed, sneaked, or slipped, but that only solves the adverb problem. It doesn’t do anything to capitalize on what your subconscious might be telling you. Instead, try looking deeper and showing someone being cautious in a way that helps characterize and further show the scene.
- I scanned the room, checking for tripwires, pressure plates, anything that looked like it might be a trap. Clear. I darted for the door.
This is interesting and tells you a lot more about what’s going on, which probably saves you words somewhere else. Especially since there’s a decent chance the description in that scene might be a little flat. If you had a better sense of the character’s emotional state and what that character was doing, you probably wouldn’t have used the adverb in the first place.
Adverb tells are used most often in dialogue. They’re dropped in to show emotion or description without conveying what that emotion or description is:
- "I hate you,” she said angrily.
In this instance, “angrily” doesn’t say how the character speaks. Does she shout? Snarl? Spit? The adverb is vague and adds nothing to the sentence that readers didn’t already assume by reading the dialogue. It’s a pretty good guess saying, “I hate you” means she’s angry.
Dramatizing the anger would show and thus make the scene more interesting. This character might bang her fist on a table, mutter snide comments under her breath, spit in someone’s face, or even pull out a Sig Sauer nine mil and blow some guy’s brains out. All of those would be more exciting than “angrily,” which can mean something different to everyone who reads it.
By using an ambiguous adverb, not only are you falling into lazy writing, you’re missing a great opportunity for characterization. The gal who would mutter snide comments is not the same gal who’d break out that Sig.
Now, let’s look at a line like:
- "I hate you,” she said softly.
Many people would swap out “softly” for whisper in this instance, but whisper isn’t the same as speaking softly. You can speak softly and not whisper. “Softly” is an adverb that conveys something specific depending on the context in which it’s used. It denotes tone as well as volume, attitude as much as forcefulness. What we pair with this adverb changes how we read it.
- She clenched her fists so tight her knuckles went white. “I hate you,” she said softly. (Implies controlled anger.)
- She giggled, covering her mouth when the teacher turned their way and glared. “I hate you,” she said softly. (Implies playfulness.)
- She kept the table between them, moving as he did around the edge. “I hate you,” she said softly. (Implies fear or apprehension.)
All three sentences use the same adverb, but notice how each has a different feel to it based on what came before it. Anger. Playfulness. Fear. Can you replace the adverb with something else? Sure. You could even drop the tag entirely. Do you have to just because it contains an adverb? No. It all depends on what you want that line to convey to readers.
Adverbs work when showing the action would take more words than using the adverb, and that would gunk up the story. It could even shift focus to the wrong detail and confuse readers.
- She muttered incoherently.
This is clear and says what it needs to say. You could eliminate “incoherently” and dramatize it, but that might put too much focus on something that doesn’t need that much focus.
- She muttered half-words that didn’t make any sense.
Every writer will have their own preference here, but “incoherently” feels clearer to me in this instance than “half-words that didn’t make any sense.” I may not want readers trying to figure out what she’s trying to say; I just want them to know she’s not saying anything that makes sense. Making a point of what she’s saying instead of how she’s saying it could lead readers down the wrong path.
The reader/writer disconnect can happen at any time. Look at where you use adverbs and identify what you’re trying to do with them. If what’s in your head isn’t making it to the page, you could wind up with a disconnect.
- "Oh, that’s just wrong,” Bob said angrily.
Here, the adverb is used to denote anger, but it makes readers decide what Bob’s anger looks like and how he acts when he’s angry. You might know Bob cracks jokes so he doesn’t blow up, so you read his dialogue in a sarcastic tone, but readers might think Bob screams and yells, or maybe he gets quiet and dangerous. They could read that same line in different ways according to what “angrily” means to them.
Adverbs are effective placeholder words that let your subconscious know where you can craft stronger scenes and sentences. It’s not always about replacing them with stronger words. Sometimes those adverbs are pinpointing an important aspect that would make the scene sing if you fleshed it out.
Adverbs, generic nouns, boring adjectives, even clichés—are valuable first-draft gems to quickly insert a basic emotional note into a scene without having to stop the drafting to find the perfect word or description.
How do you feel about adverbs? Do you find them useful or do you avoid using them?
Check out my new book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
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