My prose has a natural enemy. It’s called an “adverb”.
Adverbs have relentlessly raided my prose and now it is severely battered.
Now read again.
Adverbs have raided and battered my prose over and over again.
I don’t know about you but I like the second version a whole lot better! Yes, it’s devoid of fancy words such as “relentlessly” and “severely”, but let’s face it—did I need these two words to convey the message? Did the second version fail to express the severity of the situation? I doubt it.
Now let’s try a third version.
Adverbs have relentlessly raided and battered my prose.
OK, I think I prefer the third version! And yes, *gasp* it has a fancy adverb!
The point I’m trying to make is this:
While sometimes adverbs can be useful, many a newbie writer, myself included, tend to overuse adverbs, when there’s no need for them. Our beloved author Stephen King writes in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,
“The adverb is not your friend.” … “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
I believe King is a great author, and so, I take his opinion to heart.
That said, are all adverbs bad? I say no. There are times when an adverb can strengthen a sentence the right way. That’s why I liked the third version the best, because, adding “relentlessly” to convey the meaning instead of “over and over” economizes the sentence as well as reinforces it.
I do think that most of the times, the adverbs we use in our sentences are redundant. So, how do we make our prose strong enough to ward off any superfluous invasion by adverbs?
Through deliberate practice and reading on the topic, I have come up with a few methods that help me minimize unnecessary adverbs as much as possible.
Read a Sentence without the Adverb
When editing my prose, if I come across an adverb, I read the sentence without the adverb, often out loud. Almost 80% of the time I realize that there was no need for the said adverb in the first place.
I am guilty of over-using the words “really” and “truly”, and really, do we ever truly need these words?
Believe me when I say this. While we use adverbs to stress a point, more than half of the time, if you get rid of the adverb, you’ll see that your sentence, in fact, becomes that much stronger, and that you didn’t need those damn adverbs in the first place!
Is the Adverb Necessary, or Are You Giving in to Fear?
Often, in our speech, we use a lot of adverbs because we’re afraid that we’re not getting our point across. Sometimes, while not always, this may be the case and even a necessary process because not everyone is a good listener.
Reading, on the other hand, is a bit different. I don’t know the science behind it, but an adverb used for no reason other than to drive a point home isn’t going to get a reader’s attention any more than it would without the adverb.
So, ask yourself when you come across an adverb in your prose: Are you using the adverb because you’re afraid the reader won’t get your point? If so, omit it!
I was so pissed off that I actually hung up in the middle of our conversation!
We don’t need actually to get across the level of the narrator’s frustration here. We will do fine even without it.
I was so pissed off that I hung up in the middle of our conversation.
Use a Stronger Verb
We use an adverb, after all, to emphasize a verb, adjective, or other adverbs. So, next time you’re facing an adverb, see if you can find an alternative word, typically a verb, that strengthens your sentence by itself.
Because of all the background noise, my mother had to talk very loudly so we could hear what she was saying.
Oops, double adverbs!
How about this one instead?
Because of all the background noise, my mother had to yell so we could hear what she was saying.
To get rid of very and loudly, I replaced the verb “talk” with “yell”, which is a much stronger verb, and conveys the same meaning as “talk very loudly”.
Pay Attention to Context
Often, the true meaning of a prose depends on the proses that appear before and after. So, if you come across a modifier adverb in a prose, see if you can reinforce the same meaning in the context, by using the prose before or after the modifier adverb.
My ex has been calling me at wee hours saying how much he misses me. At first, I thought it was cute, but now it’s starting to get out of hand. Last night he showed up at my doorstep at 1 in the morning! Can you believe it? I was so startled and creeped out that I readily closed the door on his face before he could say anything.
Creepy stalker ex aside, I can see it… how readily emphasizes the narrator’s astonishment. But is it necessary? I think we get a clear understanding of the narrator’s state of mind by the time we get to “creeped out”, which makes readily anything but redundant.
Read the paragraph without the adverb and you’ll see that there’s no reason for it at all.
When in Doubt, Leave It Out
Come across an adverb that you’re not sure if it’s doing any good or not? You’re better off leaving it out.
I’d like to conclude with another quote from King:
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
In short, if you can let go of your fear that your prose is not strong enough without an adverb, and your affection for fancy (yet completely unnecessary) words, you’ll do yourself good as a writer.
It's time to grow your blog already!
Sign up for weekly tips on blogging, branding, design, business, and monetizing your hobbies and skills + Subscribers get access to the library of epic freebies!
Your email is safe here; no spam, like, EVER! You can unsubscribe at any time.