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Truly, Madly, Deeply: Considering the use of adverbs

Stephen King once said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And while this might be a titch hyperbolic, he does have a point. Many of us remember our eighth-grade English teacher telling us to make our writing more interesting, and on the surface, it seems that using adverbs would be a good way to accomplish this. But in reality, they often have the opposite effect. Using a lot of adverbs allows you to be a bit lazy in your writing; the adverb takes the place of the awesome description you could have used. Let’s take a look at what you could be doing to spice up your writing instead of using adverbs.

Find the perfect word. Often, we use adverbs because we think it gives readers a clearer picture of what’s going on. And while it’s true that “She walked slowly to the car” gives us more information than “She walked to the car,” it isn’t as useful as replacing “walked slowly” with the perfect verb. Did she amble to the car? Shuffle to the car? Saunter to the car? All of these are slow gaits, but the first implies that our protagonist was feeling pretty laid back about her walk to the car. Shuffle implies she is tired or downtrodden. And saunter has an aimless feel to it. All of them get her to the car slowly, but we are left with a different impression in each one. Make your verbs do the work of painting a picture without relying on an adverb to pick up the slack. (Side note: This isn’t to say that you should never just say, “She walked to the car.” Don’t use fancy verbs just for the sake of using fancy verbs. Sometimes all we need to know is that she walked to the car. But if you are adding an adverb because we need to know more than that, consider finding a better verb instead.)

Use dialogue to show a character’s feelings. Adverbs frequently show up in dialogue tags as a way to express a character’s feelings. For example, an author might write, “‘Stop!’ she said angrily.” Instead of making that adverb do all of the work of letting readers know how your character feels, give them words that make their emotions clear. If your character says, “Don’t you dare!”, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t saying it happily or lightly or blithely. It’s going to be obvious that she’s a bit peeved.

Use action to paint a picture. This works whether your adverb is coming in a dialogue tag or elsewhere in a scene. To take the dialogue example above, if your character yells “Stop!” while throwing a plate against the wall, her anger should once again be clear. If she yells, “Stop!” while scrambling away, her fear will come across. And if she says, “Stop!” while giggling, we can be pretty sure she doesn’t really want it to stop. It’s the same word every time, but the action that accompanies it completely changes its meaning. This is much more powerful than tossing an adverb after the word said.

The same principle applies elsewhere in the scene. If you’ve written, “He took her hand tenderly and bashfully,” see if you can find a way to show us this instead. For instance:

“He reached for her hand and then drew his back again before she could see. When she turned and smiled at him, he looked down, avoiding her eyes, while he grasped her hand in both of his. He stroked the soft skin on the back of her hand several times before getting the courage to look at her.”

Okay, that might be a bit too sappy for your tastes, but you get the idea. Now we can feel his bashfulness, perhaps remembering a time we, too, were afraid to reach out. And we can see him tenderly stroking her hand instead of just being told that’s what he did. We are there in the scene with the shy couple, instead of sitting in our favorite chair reading about them.

Some people will tell you that you should never use an adverb, and I think that’s taking it too far. But like everything else in the world, adverbs should be used with moderation. When you are tempted to use one, stop and think if there is a more powerful way that you could tell readers what they need to know. If the adverb truly is the best way to get your message across in that moment, then use it. By forcing yourself to contemplate the value of each adverb, you will naturally lessen your dependence on them and strengthen your writing.

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