Last updated on February 25th, 2023 at 03:49 pm
Adverbs have a bad reputation, but they aren’t inherently bad. The key is to know when to use an adverb. You don’t want to use them all the time because they can weaken your writing, but sometimes an adverb is the best way to get something across. So, let’s talk about it.
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.
Why adverbs can be bad
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 is 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.
So, if you’re using adverbs instead of more descriptive words or you’re relying on adverbs to get your point across, the best practice is removing those unnecessary adverbs. You don’t want to be using them as a crutch.
When to use an adverb
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. Too many can even cause an agent or editor to reject your work. This is why you have to evaluate every adverb you put into your work during the editing stage. Go through your work with the specific goal of catching every adverb. Underline every instance and then carefully consider if you need it. If there’s a stronger word you could be using or it feels unnecessary, remove or replace it.
Figuring out when to use an adverb and when not to can take some time to learn. But it’s worth putting in that effort because inappropriately used adverbs can seriously weaken your writing.
Got questions? Drop them below!