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All stock images were from Pixabay.

I’m almost finished with my edits to Sojourn in Captivity, and I came upon something during my revisions that I thought I’d share with you.

General writing advice states that “Adverbs are bad.” This was most recently (Yes…that’s an adverb, but I needed it) reiterated to me in Elements of Fiction Writing-Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell (I’ll review that soon, I promise). Bell says, “Always see if you can find a strong enough verb to stand on it’s own.”

So let’s talk about those pesky modifiers.

What are adverbs:  Adverbs are one of the eight parts of speech.  They most commonly (see that?) modify verbs, but they can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. They usually (yep..there’s another one) end in “ly.”

So why are they bad?

I offer two reasons why adverbs are almost never helpful:

1) They’re vague. People tend to want to throw an adverb in there because they have a clear picture in their mind about what they see, but they’re not looking for the best word. So they do something bad writers do: they fall under the illusion that more words makes bad writing better.  This is false. More words don’t make a sentence more clear or a book better. Here are some examples:

He quickly ran – So…you mean he sprinted.

He said softly – So….you mean he whispered.

He shouted loudly – Okay, now you’re just being ridiculous. Have you ever heard someone shout quietly?

eye-2286601__3402) They cause more problems then they solve. The second problem isn’t about the adverb one uses (though you’re better off if you replace it with a stronger verb). It’s about where people put adverbs. Adverbs are modifiers, and when you put a modifier in the wrong place, you alter the wrong verb, adjective, or adverb. My students recognize this as a misplaced modifier. Here are some examples:

He fought until he tirelessly finished his work for the day. – No.  I don’t think he finished tirelessly. In fact, I’d wager he was exhausted by the time he finished. I think that because I’m pretty sure he fought tirelessly

He typed until he quickly finished his writing for the day. – Well, maybe he did finish quickly, but the way he finished quickly was by typing fast. Here, there’s less confusion about what the writer meant, but I’m telling you it still makes the writer look bad.

What I hope I’ve done is help you see why adverbs cause problems. Can you eliminate them completely? (Obviously (Yes….I’m aware of what I did twice in a row.) not.) What you want to do is make sure each adverb is justified. Every time you write an adverb, justify its existence as if you are justifying your right to be a writer.

What did I do?

First: I did a search for ly.

manuscript-1614234__340My trusty writing program told me I had 406 adverbs in my story. I went adverb to adverb, just as I recommend you do. When it was all said and done, 363 adverbs remain. That’s not entirely true. (Wait…I mean there’ s more to it than that). My word program said there were 363 words that end in the letters ly. That means the word family would appear in the search. I’m not sure how many actual adverbs I have left, but I’m happy I switched out about 40 for stronger verbs. The story moves better. Each sentence is stronger for it.

Following this plan, or one like it, will do the same for you.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

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8 thoughts on “Frantically writing Badly: The trouble with adverbs

  1. Y’know, I’ve yet to see anyone write a novel (or even a short story) without using adverbs, even those who claim that all adverbs are bad and should be eliminated.

    I agree with the main points of this post (a misplaced adverb can mess up a sentence, and some adverbs are unnecessary/redundant), but misuse/overuse of adverbs shouldn’t be used to “prove” that all adverb usage is wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope I didn’t come off that way. I read a lot of “destroy at all costs” stuff. I think they have their place. It’s my opinion that they’re the most dangerous part of speech. They should be used with thought and intent. I’m more in the corner of “they’re overused” more so than “they’re the origin of evil.”

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, and I hope this clears that up.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree. I’m always skeptical of absolutes. The idea that specific words or types of words should always be cut just makes no sense to me. Language is a precise tool, and, as you say, the key is to really interrogate the words we use, and make sure that we are consciously and intentionally using them because they are the best way to express our meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting how much writing advice says to kill adverbs, yet, they are everywhere in romance novels. I have often wondered why.

    For my first draft, I adverb away. My second draft, I try to get rid of adverbs with stronger verbs or more description.

    With practice writing, I’ve found myself using fewer adverbs and writing more descriptively.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I save the rage against adverbs for my fourth draft. The more your think about it, the more you tend to be able to improve. It’s all about using the right word at the right time. Sometimes, that’s an adverb.

      Like

    1. I appreciate the feedback J.J. Things just overlapped for me. I wasn’t sure what I was going to blog about, and then I found myself laughing at some of the adverbs I got carried away with. So it all worked out.

      Liked by 1 person

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