This is one of those pieces of writing advice that seems to ruffle a lot of feathers whenever it does the rounds. And with good reason, because it’s often written as an absolute (Thou shalt not use adverbs!) when that’s really not the case.
Not all adverbs were created equal. Yes, some are clunky and unnecessary, but some can add nuance and depth to your story. It’s all about identifying where they work and where they don’t.
So let’s look into how we do that, shall we?
What is an adverb?
You may have learned in school that adverbs are -ly words (quickly, greatly, sadly), but there’s a little more to them than that. For starters, they don’t always end in -ly:
Jack ran away.
Sarah will arrive soon.
‘Away’ and ‘soon’ in the above examples are both adverbs, because they are there to provide more information about an action – the verb. It’s similar to how adjectives add description to a noun. Another thing to note is that adverbs aren’t always just one word; these are called adverbial phrases:
The man was stabbed in the heart.
The crowd waited in silence.
They walked at a snail’s pace.
Now we’ve got the basics of what adverbs are nailed down, let’s look at when they are and aren’t good to use.
When are adverbs bad to use?
Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule for when to use an adverb, but there are some instances that I see a lot when editing. One of the main places you’ll find unnecessary adverbs is in dialogue tags:
‘You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,’ he said adoringly.
Sarah yawned. ‘I’m exhausted,’ she said sleepily.
In these examples, the adverbs don’t add anything that the context and/or dialogue itself hasn’t already given us. If you were to take them away, you wouldn’t lose anything. Another particularly common occurrence is using redundant adverbs with alternatives to said:
‘It’s so peaceful in here,’ she whispered quietly.
‘Wait for me,’ he shouted loudly.
This tends to crop up with new writers who tangle themselves in knots just to avoid using ‘said’. If that’s you, I’m here to tell you that ‘said’ is alive and well and happy for you to keep using it. Alternatives are fine, within reason, but you definitely don’t need unnecessary adverbs cluttering up your dialogue tags.
In a similar vein, these redundant adverbs can crop up in narration, too:
Sarah tip-toed slowly across the room.
John hungrily devoured the meal before him.
If you’ve noticed any such examples in your own writing and you’re not sure whether the adverb is adding anything to the sentence, try dropping it and see how it changes what you’re trying to convey.
When are adverbs good to use?
Adverbs work – sometimes very well – when they are used with intent to add mood, atmosphere or description to a scene. In many of the cases above, the adverb can be removed or made redundant simply by using a stronger verb. There are times, however, when the verb can only do so much and an adverb elevates it:
Sarah sighed wistfully.
Jack smiled condescendingly.
In this case, if we were to remove the adverb, we would lose the nuance around the verb. A sigh is an action we are all familiar with, but there’s a difference between, say, a heavy sigh and a wistful sigh – they convey very different emotions. Both need to use the same verb, but the adverb adds the right context.
Break the rules… with intent
Like with a lot of writing advice, it’s fine to break the rules, but you have to first understand why they’re there. Most of these ‘rules’ are more like guidelines – they aren’t hard and fast. Your writing isn’t bad because you used adverbs. The trick is to be mindful of how you use them.
Adverbs have their place, but when you do use them, do it with intent.