Pretty Little Words — Using Adverbs

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Do pretty words add vividness or clarity to your narrative? Do adverbs dress up your description? Are they useful or fluff?


First, we need to define adverb. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Often they can be recognized by –ly at the end. They add meaning by answering questions about when, where, how, and to what extent something happens.


Why are you Writing?

Second, let’s consider why you are writing. Are you writing instructions to teach someone to follow a recipe? Stir, whip, baste, and broil are action verbs and rarely need to be dressed up with modifiers. In this instance, more than occasional use of adverbs would have to be considered fluff. If you are writing a letter to your mother, describing your recent vacation, bright and fun adverbs may be appropriate. Mom my enjoy hearing about how hard you laughed or how lazy you were. You probably leave out the flowery words when drafting a memo to the boss, but a couple (and just a couple) of well-placed adverbs can add impact to a resume.

Adverbs are used to enhance the words they modify.

So why do they get such a bad rap? Simply put, adverbs often stifle clarity rather than add description. They are sometimes referred to as a lazy writer’s tool, as it’s easier to write “runs quickly,” than it is to consider of stronger verbs like zips, sprints or dashes.

When you find the stronger verb, an adverb becomes redundant. Using the example above, we found that sprints was a stronger verb than runs. If we use the stronger word, the word quickly is no longer needed to underscore what the verb already describes. In the phrase, “Yelled loudly,” the word “yelled” is a verb that is already understood to be loud.   Or an adverb can point to a circumstance, emotion or movement without offering any solid impact. Does the adverb “very” add clarity when describing “hot”? To a reader, how much different is a big dog from a very big dog?

Vivid writing depends more on strong verbs than pretty adverbs.

To prove this, here is an experiment for you to try. It’s not an original idea; many have already tried and learned from it. Try to do some descriptive writing without using adverbs. The first thing you will notice is that it’s not easy.   They’ve become so common in our language that we don’t even realize they are there.   Describing an event or a scene without them requires precise nouns, vivid verbs, and well placed similes and metaphors. Until using stronger verbs becomes second nature, it’s a good idea to have a good thesaurus on hand.

Eliminating every adverb from your writing is risky

But you will also find something else: a few well-placed adverbs do add to the description. Eliminating every adverb from your writing is risky. Writing that lacks variety becomes slow and dreary. After a detailed description of the exciting adventures of his vacation, a simple “He went home,” adds a simple yet complimentary sense of closure. In her 2016 article titles “Writing Tips: Abolish the Adverbs,” Melissa Donovan provided these suggestions on the use of adverbs:

  • Don’t be lazy. Choosing the right word is never a waste of time.
  • Stay away from adverbs that state the obvious. One does not scream loudly because by definition, screaming is done loudly.
  • If a sentence is too short, don’t add a bunch of adverbs (or adjectives) to make it longer.
  • Train your eye to catch adverbs when you’re editing and proofreading.
  • When you spot an adverb, do your best to rewrite the sentence without it.
  • Only use an adverb if it’s necessary and you can’t convey the same meaning without it.
  • Avoid vague or non-descriptive adverbs. Ask whether the adverb tells the reader something that you can show through imagery and description.
  • Don’t use an adverb as a crutch for a verb (or any other word). Look for a better verb. If necessary, write a better sentence.
  • Sometimes, when you eliminate a single adverb, you need to replace it with several words. It took three words (batting her eyelashes) to replace one adverb (flirtatiously), but the sentence became clearer and more vivid.
  • Don’t be redundant. One does not stealthily creep because to creep is “to move with stealth.”
  • When you do use adverbs, use them intentionally and with purpose.
  • Make it a goal to never use the words very or really.

With these tips in mind, try another experiment. Find a piece of your writing that has been edited and proofread. Read through it and highlight every adverb. One by one, remove each adverb and consider whether its removal changed the meaning of the sentence. If it does not change the meaning, strike the word. If it does change the meaning, try rewriting the sentence to eliminate the adverb. Don’t be surprised if you end up removing well over half the adverbs used. When finished, compare the original to the revision. Did reducing the pretty words detract from vividness or clarity of your narrative? Were the missing adverbs useful or fluff? The outcome of this experiment may not always be the same.



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One thought on “Pretty Little Words — Using Adverbs

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