Adverbs create controversy. Seriously.
Those words that modify verbs, and usually end in “ly,” are much loved by some readers and authors and hated by others, who advocate for cutting as many as possible.
Stephen King v. J.K. Rowling
In his book On Writing, Stephen King said he was convinced the “road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Hemingway, well-known for his spare writing, rarely used them.
On the other hand, J.K. Rowling's hugely popular Harry Potter series uses tons of adverbs. As do her mysteries under the Robert Galbraith pen name, which I love. (Some say the liberal use of adverbs is part of what led to the reveal that Galbraith was Rowling.)
While part of it is style, the best rule I've found for adverbs is to ask the same question I ask about any other word: Do I really need it?
Read on for how the rule works in key parts of a novel.
Stronger Verbs Need Fewer Adverbs
When adverbs arise from lazy writing, they can become distracting or annoying to readers. One form of lazy writing, in my view, is using an adverb plus a verb where a verb alone can do a better job.
For example, using any of the verbs below in place of walked slowly creates a faster, more powerful read:
So when editing your novel, ask yourself if you can replace a verb + adverb with a single verb, especially one that creates a more vivid picture.
The latest, and my favorite, Robert Galbraith novel. While as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site, that doesn’t change what books I love or recommend or the price to you.
Avoid Redundant Adverbs
Adverbs that repeat what the verb conveys can also drag down your writing.
- ambled slowly
- shouted loudly
- whispered softly
- raced swiftly
If you remove those adverbs, you'll lose nothing and make your book a faster read.
Using Adverbs For Clarity Or Emphasis
Sometimes an adverb is the perfect word. Or the only word.
For instance, a character can whisper, speak in a normal tone, or shout. But there isn't a verb that falls in between the whisper and normal tone, so you might use the dialogue tag said softly or say the character spoke quietly. (You might use the verb murmur, but that has some connotations beyond the volume.)
Similarly, while a character can sing, hum, or chant, I can't think of any verb that conveys the volume of any of those three different actions.
Adverbs can also be used for emphasis.
Above I used the phrase “exactly the same thing.” Some (probably Hemingway) would argue that's redundant. After all, you can't be inexactly the same. It's the same or it's not.
Others (maybe Rowling) would say exactly serves a key purpose. It emphasizes the importance of the point. It's more dramatic. I'm making a point that these two things are not just the same, they are exactly the same.
Dialogue and Dialogue Tags
Just as verbs alone can create a more vivid scene for the reader, well written dialogue and/or action can be a stronger way to convey your characters' feelings.
“Cut it out,” she said tells us as much or more about how the speaker feels than: “Please stop what you are doing,” she said angrily.
The following also conveys anger in strong, vivid way: “Stop it.” She slammed her hand on the table.
If it would take multiple words to describe the character's actions or put a phrase into context, though, it might be quicker and more compelling to use an adverb. “I love you,” he said sadly tells us a lot right away about the relationship between speaker and the listener.
In contrast to figuring out whether you need an adverb or not, how many adverbs you use within dialogue depends mainly on each specific character.
In my Q.C. Davis series, one of the protagonist's friends uses adverbs a lot for emphasis, drama, and because it's a bit of a verbal tic. Quille, the protagonist, speaks in plainer, less wordy sentences. If she uses adverbs, it's usually as part of a wry observation about something. (Genre also affects dialogue, but that's the subject of a different article.)
When To Think About Adverbs
I try not to think too much about adverbs when I'm writing a first draft. I prefer to get the words down on the page as quickly as possible, which means not stressing over each word choice.
Also, when I focused on avoiding adverbs in early drafts my characters tended to be less developed. Mostly because I knew less about how they felt.
For most writers, it works better to deal with adverbs during the line editing process, which I typically do during my last major revision. That's when I do my best to eliminate unnecessary words, including adverbs.
You can look specifically for adverbs by using Crtl-F to search for ly. That catches most adverbs and has the added benefit of making you aware how often you use them.
That's all for today. Until next Friday —