Among advice frequently bestowed upon writers is avoiding the adverb trap. Adverbs are those lovely little words—often ending in –ly—that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. They don’t always end in –ly, of course. That’s a very pretty sweater; really, it’s just too cute.
But –ly adverbs are especially tricky because they’re easy to use. We dress up our writing with them, and before we know it, our readers are drowning in a sea of adverbs. It’s easy to start pouring –ly words onto the page, especially in early drafts. The trick is to pluck enough of these words out as we revise so that the reader isn’t constantly being bombarded by adverbs.
As I was revising one of my WIPs, I stumbled across a couple pages in which –ly words were running amok. I began to notice the repetition, so I went through and circled every –ly word. Yep. Way too many.
After I’d weeded the scene of excess adverbs, I figured I would gather up a few of my tricks for reducing adverb usage.
1.) Simply delete the –ly word. Perhaps it wasn’t adding anything to the sentence. When we delete it, does the meaning of the sentence change or become vague? If not, the simplest solution might be best: Do away with the word altogether. This is often the case when an adverb modifies an adjective. “He was absolutely irresistible,” could become, “He was irresistible.”
And –ly words aren’t the only adverbs to watch out for. Mark Twain once said of the adverb “very”: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” In other words, if our character is very angry, why can’t he just be angry? Or, here’s another possibility:
2.) Choose stronger adjectives. Maybe a stronger adjective is called for altogether. Maybe he isn’t very angry, he’s seething, raging, livid, or furious. Maybe we don’t just need to lose the adverb. Maybe we need a different adjective as well.
3.) Choose stronger verbs. Perhaps no verb gets modified more than “said.” Are we echoing words like said, touched, smiled, walked, looked, etc.? If so, maybe we initially used an adverb for some variety. What if we try using a stronger verb that can convey the connotation without needing to be modified? Consider this dialogue tag: “… she said heatedly.” What if we replaced said with challenged, demanded, or argued? We’ve varied our word choice and eliminated the need for an adverb here.
4.) Use concrete, creative description. Sometimes the solution is trickier, and what’s really needed is a reworking of the sentence to craft a more powerful sentence construct. Or, if we find too many adverbs peppering a scene, it might be that more concrete details are called for to let the reader into the scene.
For example, consider this passage: He pressed his hand lightly against her arm. She turned swiftly away. He sighed frustratedly. What if we just get creative here and expand the scene?
Instead we try: His touch might have been light, but it sent warmth radiating through her nonetheless. And that sensation confused the hell out of her. She put a little distance between them. He sighed, curling his fingers, no doubt frustrated with her mixed signals.
The revision beats the initial adverb-laden passage. In the first version, the adverbs are telling. In the second version, nouns and verbs do the bulk of the work.
5.) Let it stand. Not every –ly word needs to be eliminated from our writing. A well-used adverb here and there can be more powerful than ten poorly used ones. Consider these sentences from Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Secret:
“Finally, they were getting somewhere. And shockingly, there was thick, dewy foliage sprouting from the rocks. Nice, she thought, until…” (End excerpt, page 182. I don’t want to give it away.)
See? Adverbs aren’t evil, but they are easy to overuse.
The bottom line is that a scene should be strong enough to come alive on the page without adverbs to prop it up. Nouns and verbs should always do the heavy lifting. If they’re not, we need to step back and figure out what’s missing. Not enough description? Too much passive voice? Too many weak verbs or sentence constructs? Or are we worried that our characters aren’t coming through clearly enough? Sometimes overuse of adverbs is purely accidental. Other times, it might signify a broader issue with a scene. Maybe it isn’t where it needs to be yet.
What approach do you take to adverbs when editing? Do you have any tricks of your own you’d like to share?