How to Make Adverbs Work for You

This post is by Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy).

We hear it all the time: never use adverbs in your writing. Sound advice, but if we follow it to the extreme, we could miss out on their very useful properties.

As bad a rep as adverbs have, they’re actually pretty handy during a first draft. They allow us to jot down how a character feels or speaks without losing our momentum. We can keep writing, and go back and revise later.

Adverbs are red flags

Adverbs are also helpful red flags during revisions, pointing out great opportunities to flesh out what our character is doing and identify places we might want to develop further.

I walked cautiously across the room to the back door.

Here, “cautiously” is explaining that this person is cautious in some way. We could find another word for “walked cautiously,” like tiptoed or sneaked, but that only solves the lazy adverb problem. It doesn’t do anything to capitalize on what our subconscious might be telling us. Instead, try looking deeper and showing someone being cautious in a way that helps characterize and further develop the scene.

I scanned the room, checking for tripwires, pressure plates, anything that looked like it might be a trap. Looked clear. I darted for the door.

Is it longer than the first adverb sentence? Sure, but it’s more interesting and conveys additional information about what’s going on—which probably saves words elsewhere.

Adverbs are mood changers

Let’s look at another common example:

“I hate you,” she said angrily.

In this instance, there are plenty of ways we can dramatize anger. The she in question can bang her fist on a table, spit in his face, pull out a Sig Sauer nine mil and blow his brains out. All of those would be more exciting than “angrily,” which can mean something different to everyone who reads it. This is a great opportunity for characterization. The gal who would bang her fist on a table is not the same gal who’d break out that Sig.

Now, look at a line like:

“I hate you,” she said softly.

Many people would swap out “softly” for “whisper” in this instance, but whispering isn’t the same as speaking softly. I can speak softly and not whisper. “Softly” is an adverb that conveys something specific depending on the context in which it’s used. What it’s paired with will make or break it

She clenched her fists so tight her knuckles went white. “I hate you,” she said softly. She giggled, covering her mouth when the teacher turned their way and glared. “I hate you,” she said softly. She kept the table between them, moving as he did around the edge. “I hate you,” she said softly.

Three sentences, the same adverb in each, but notice how every single one has a different feel to it based on what came before it. Anger. Playfulness. Fear. Can we replace the adverb with something else? You bet. We could even drop the tag entirely. Do we have to just because it contains an adverb? No, I don’t think so.

Instead of cutting adverbs without prejudice, try looking at each one and what its sentence is trying to do, and then consider other ways to get that idea across. It’s not always about replacing an adverb with a stronger word, though that’s certainly an option. Sometimes those adverbs are pinpointing an important aspect that would make the section sing if we fleshed it out.

Adverbs are not the enemy. They’re just our subconscious telling us to “do more here.”

About the Author: Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats, and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online, chat with her about writing on her blog The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your policy on adverbs? Are you a “kill them all” or a “catch and release” type writer?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Awesome and tremendous post, Janice (almost said “tremendously”!). Adverbs have a way of sneaking in and I have a way of not seeing them on revisions – this will remind me to focus on their use and determine how to leverage more “show” and less “tell” in my writing.

    Thanks so much!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Janice!

  3. Leslie Monarch says:

    As a newby I found this extremely helpful and will help me focus on just getting that first draft written.

  4. Clear and concise. I do try to remove all of the ly adverbs without prejudice, but I’m guilty of leaving some of the others in. Especially when trying to convey similar meaning removes my voice or makes the sentence work too hard. Know what I mean?

  5. “I love this post,” he said quietly. He said giggling while turning quickly on his heels and then marched toward the door.

  6. What a great idea to use adverbs as flags for possible revision. Thanks=)

  7. Anonymous says:

    I love the idea of a “catch and release” policy for adverbs. Very clever.

  8. Great post! What I have always wondered which no one has an answer for If adverbs are so “bad” why do they exist??? I’m just a writer trying to learn.

    Debi

  9. I never realized most of those adverbs were “tell” that can be converted to “show”. But then, we weren’t taught, because “never use adverbs” was the usual advice (one it’s so hard to follow). Brilliant post!

    Now off to my manuscript…

  10. Great post!

    I try to limit them as much as possible because I tend to use them too much. 🙂 I catch myself whenever I write one and make an effort to rewrite the sentence to make it stronger, or I just change the word.

  11. I’m a firm believer that adverbs have a place in writing. Some styles call for them more than others. I do look for mine as I’m editing and try to keep them in control, especially if they are a result of lazy writing.

  12. Thanks for this. It was so much more helpful than the “Don’t use adverbs” advice.

  13. Thanks for a great post Janice. It both shows why we use adverbs, how to replace but also that maybe, just maybe it’s okay to use them occasionally. I like that.

  14. Barbara, you’re welcome! The ly makes it so easy to search for them in revisions, too.

    KM, thanks for much for having me. I’ve been a fan of your blog for years 🙂

    Leslie, glad it helped. First drafts are allowed to be messy, so don’t worry about being perfect. One of my favorite quote is “Don’t get it right, get it written!”

    Marjilaine, Totally. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Adverbs have their place and they’re good words when they’re the right word for the sentence.

    Steve, LOL, “thanks,” she said gratefully.

    Jennifermzeiger, most welcome! I started doing it years ago. It’s a great place to start the polishing.

    Anon, thanks! Sometimes I feel badly for the little guys.

    Debi, because they’re useful. I think the reason so much advice says not to use them, is that it’s easy to use them badly and it leads to poor writing (mostly telling and clunky prose). But when used well, they’re good words that can say exactly what you need to say.

    Dennis, thanks! That’s why I like them for first drafts. They can tell us exactly what we want to write without slowing our momentum. Then we can flesh them out when we’re focused and revising.

    Elke, that’s great. What matters most is that we try to write the strongest sentence we can every time 🙂

    Cindy, me too. That’s when they need to go. When they’re just lazy writing.

    Cayman Writer’s Circle, thanks! That advice always bugged me 🙂 I like “don’t use adverbs badly.”

    Jenny, I do too. All words have their uses, and adverbs can be very useful in the right circumstances.

  15. Very helpful! Thanks!

  16. Great advice. And a good reminder to THINK about revising rather than using the advice we’ve heard or learned.

  17. I’ve learned more from thinking about why I do things than anything else. It not only taught me about my own process, but made it clear when I didn’t actually understand a rule I’d followed blindly.

  18. Janice, it seems I’ve found my soul mate as I support your ideas! I’ve heard a lot about hate for adverbs, and I couldn’t understand what were wrong with them. I’ve done a research, and the main idea was clear: there is nothing wrong about the adverbs! The problem is that people misuse them! So, I also believe that if you want to make adverbs work for you, there is no better way than learn when to remove or leave them. This infographic may help you understand core principles: http://adverbless.com/adverbs-good-or-bad.html

    And, yes, “adverbs are not the enemy”. Let’s become better together 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] that we don’t have to worry about those dreaded adverbs, as Janice Hardy reminds us in her post How To Make Adverbs Work for You : “As bad a rep as adverbs have, they’re actually pretty handy during a first draft. They allow […]

  2. […] There are some adverb-friendly posts out there. See Victoria Hooper, Writing Rules and Fantasy: Adverbs and Janice Hardy, How to Make Adverbs Work for You […]

  3. […] Now I learned that I shouldn’t use adverbs and I shouldn’t write rap. But, I love the advice in this article: How to Make Adverbs Work for You by @janicehardy on Helping Writers Become Authors website: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/06/how-to-make-adverbs-work-for-you.html […]

  4. […] Janice Hardy, writing on KM Weiland’s blog, advises us to see adverbs as “helpful red flags during revisions, pointing out great opportunities to flesh out what our character is doing and identify places we might want to develop further.” She seems to allow that there might be a case where an adverb can remain, but it’s an isolated case. […]

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