First, let’s make sure we’re all clear on what exactly an adverb is. An adverb is a word that modifies an adjective or a verb. So, in the sentence, “he said softly,” “softly” is the adverb. Basically, any word that ends in -ly is probably an adverb.
In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend, by the way), Noah Lukeman has an entire section about adverbs and adjectives. He writes “Adjectives and adverbs often, ironically, weaken their subjects.” He’s right.
The thing about adverbs it that they’re easy. You don’t have to think about them too much. You can say something happened quickly or they spoke loudly. But they’re also generally ineffective. Why would you say they spoke loudly when you could say they shouted? Shouted is more powerful and gives your reader a better idea of what’s happening.
The best place to use an adverb is when it contradicts the situation. It comes unexpectedly and changes the reader’s view of the situation. Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools gives a great example: “consider these two sentences: ‘She smiled happily’ and ‘She smiled sadly.'” Someone smiling “sadly” goes against our expectations.
I put the Tumblr post above because I agree with it. Sometimes adverbs change our understanding of the situation. If you find yourself truly seeing a difference between using a stronger verb and an adverb, feel free to use it.
Ultimately, adverbs are always tricky. They can indeed weaken your writing and even cause an agent or editor to reject your work. This is why you have to evaluate every adverb you put into your work. Go through your work with the specific goal of catching every adverb. Underline every adverb and then carefully consider if you need it.
If you’re really struggling with your writing, and you’re not sure how to fix it yourself, reach out to me. Find out how I can help you!