Adverbs: avoid them

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs and phrases. They should be used sparingly, and only when they can bring clarity or a subtle nuance. Stephen King, in On Writing, shows his edits for a story he wrote. In the first draft, he’d included a smattering of adverbs, which he took pleasure in deleting when working on the next draft. One adverb, however, he left in:

‘Heartily’ has been allowed to stand because I want the reader to understand that Mike is making fun of Mr Olin.

King (2000: 344)

Most of the time, however, you should avoid adverbs, especially almost meaningless adverbs like these:

  • absolutely
  • actually
  • basically
  • highly
  • immediately
  • incredibly
  • literally
  • obviously
  • readily
  • really
  • simply
  • suddenly
  • just
  • now
  • somehow
  • very

Adverbs like these add to the word count without adding value.

Sentence adverbs modify sentences; the grammar police tend to look down on these adverbs, even though they are perfectly grammatical. The real problem is that they add clutter, especially as they are usually followed by a comma. Examples include luckily, obviously, personally, sadly, unfortunately and well.

If you insist on using adverbs, beware. Absolutely meaning ‘yes’ is considered irritating by the public in general (Butterfield 2010). Actually makes the speaker come across as a pedant or know-it-all. However, if that’s the desired effect, then go with it. Immediately and suddenly don’t add anything – Leonard’s (2001) sixth rule of writing states to never use suddenly – and neither does simply. Pedants will object to literally being used to mean ‘figuratively’. Unless Sam is trying to sidetrack the reader, make sure that when she says obviously, what she says is obvious to the person she’s talking to – but if something is that obvious, why is she pointing it out? If she has a good reason, then let her, ideally without the adverb.

Find all your adverbs and consider whether they are needed or not. If you can’t justify their presence, there’s a decent chance you can delete them with no detrimental effect. Others might need you to rework the sentence into something even the grammar police would find acceptable.

Sam moved down the corridor tells the reader nothing of how she moved. She could be gliding like a ghost for all the reader knows. Sam walked slowly down the corridor is marginally better, but the reader is being told how she walked. Instead, show the reader: delete the adverb and choose a better verb: have her stride, amble, trudge, limp. The reader can interpret something about her state of mind or physical condition from the way she moves. Having said that, if her walking style is neutral or unimportant, walk is probably fine. Move is not.

Elmore Leonard’s fourth rule of writing (Leonard 2001) is to ‘never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”‘. Fiction is full of people saying things quietly, loudly, slowly, quickly. Don’t fall into the adverbial trap of telling, not showing.

Instead of telling the reader how Sam said something, show the reader. One technique is to modify the character’s language: if Sam is furious she is not likely to be shouting long sentences in one go (1). It takes a lot of effort to do that, and even the angriest schoolteacher can’t keep that up for long.

  1. ‘How could you even think that I would do something like that? You’ve got a real nerve, you know that? It’s like you hardly know me at all,’ Sam shouted.
  2. ‘How could you?’

Short, snappy sentences (2) are more effective when it comes to anger. Why not leave it up to the reader’s imagination as to whether Sam shouts, snarls or snaps? That way, the reader doesn’t read it one way, only for you to tell them Sam uttered it another way.

Another technique is to add an action beat showing the rage (3).

  1. Sam slammed her fists on the table. ‘How could you?’

Nobody who is happy slams their fists on the table.

References

  • Butterfield, Jeremy. 2010. Damp squid: the English language laid bare, Oxford University Press.
  • King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing: a memoir of the craft, reissued 2020 by Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Elmore Leonard. 2001. Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Harper Collins.