Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Use Adverbs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy


Writers the world over just shuddered when I said that. The experts tell us to never use adverbs--adverbs are bad, adverbs are evil, adverbs will sneak into your room late at night and strangle you in your bed.

Well, not really.

Poor use of adverbs is bad, but adverbs are a perfectly good tool in any writer's toolbox. Many have equated them to a heavy spice, like cayenne pepper. A dash spices things up, but too much makes the dish inedible. Some writers, especially those just starting out, think they must kill all adverbs and never ever use them or their work will be rejected.

Again, not really.

Agents and editors aren't counting your adverbs and if you go over a secret number they reject you. Readers aren't thinking how much better the book would be if not for all those pesky adverbs. What they are doing, is reading your story and deciding every page if they want to keep reading it. If they find reasons not to, they'll stop. One of those reasons is bad writing, and bad adverb usage is high on the list of what's considered bad writing.

Adverbs are acceptable if used well. The trick is to know when you're being lazy and when you're using the right word to say what you mean.

(Here's more with The Freedom of Placeholder Words in First Drafts)

Adverbs are most often misused in dialogue. They're dropped in to show emotion or description without actually conveying what that emotion or description is:
"I hate you," she said angrily.
In this instance, angrily doesn't tell you how the character actually speaks. Does she shout? Snarl? Spit? The adverb is vague so it doesn't add anything to the sentence readers can't already assume by the dialog. It's a pretty good guess saying "I hate you" means she's angry.

There are also much stronger ways a writer can dramatize that anger to make the scene more interesting. This character might bang her fist on a table, mutter snide comments under her breath, spit in someone's face, pull out a Sig Sauer nine mil and blow some guy's brains out. All of those would be more exciting than angrily, which can mean something different to everyone who reads it.

By using an ambiguous adverb, not only are we falling into lazy writing, we're missing a great opportunity for characterization. The gal who would mutter snide comments is not the same gal who'd break out that Sig.

Now, let's look at a line like:
"I hate you," she said softly.
Many people would swap out softly for whisper in this instance, but whisper 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. It denotes tone as well as volume, attitude as much as forcefulness. What we pair this adverb with will make or break it.
She clenched her fists so tight her knuckles went white. "I hate you," she said softly. (implies controlled anger)

She giggled, covering her mouth when the teacher turned their way and glared. "I hate you," she said softly. (implies playfulness)

She kept the table between them, moving as he did around the edge. "I hate you, " she said softly. (implies fear or apprehension)
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 you replace the adverb with something else? Sure. You could even drop the tag entirely. Do you have to just because it contains an adverb? No, I don't think so. It all depends on what you want that line to convey to the reader.

(Here's more with Are You Missing Opportunities to Make Your Writing Stronger?)

Sometimes the rhythm of the sentence needs those extra syllables to achieve how the author wants that sentence to sound or flow. Never underestimate the power of sentence rhythm. There's a reason great speeches are great, and rhythm is a big part of that. How the words hit our ears is just as important as what those words are saying.

(Here's more with Rhythm of the Words: Voice in Dialogue)

Some adverbs work fine as adverbs, because trying to show the adverb would take more words than using the adverb and gunk up the story. It could even shift focus to the wrong thing and confuse the reader.
She muttered incoherently.
This is clear and says what it needs to say. You could eliminate it and dramatize more, but that might put too much focus on something that doesn't need that much focus.
She muttered half words that didn't make any sense.
Every writer will have their own preference here, but incoherently feels clearer to me in this instance than half words that didn't make any sense. I may not want the reader trying to figure out what she's trying to say, I just want them to know she's not saying anything that makes sense. Making of point of what she's saying instead of how she's saying it could lead the reader down the wrong path.

(Here's more with Overcoming Adversity Through Adverbs)

Adverbs are powerful, but don't be afraid of them. Just learn to use them well and your stories will be better for it.

Any adverb questions? Share your tips or stories about adverbs.  

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I remember when I first started writing I used adverbs, found out they were bad, and took them all out. Then my story was soooo flat. So I put them back in.

    Now I'm judicious and use them sparingly, and only when I know it's the perfect word to use.It does make a difference.

    1. It really does. I just trust my ear. If it sounds better with it, I leave it in. It if jars me, I take it out.

  2. Hooray for "Save The Adverb" movement!
    The post "killed me softly" :-)

  3. Great post. Thanks so much. I will be posting the link on my blog.

  4. But... but... WHY do people insist on hyphenating them with adjectives?

    1. I think a lot of it comes down to lazy writing (and I mean that in a "rushing past and not taking time to find the right words, not a derogatory way), or difficulty finding the best way to express what's in their heads. They're painting "pictures" not dramatizing a scene. Painting is description, so adjectives and adverbs, drama is active, so nouns and verbs. (and that just gave me an idea for an article, so thanks!)

  5. This is so great! I just - today - received a manuscript from a first-time author who proudly proclaimed she had 'cleansed' it of adverbs. I groaned. Then, e voila! your post popped up. That sound you heard was the link being zapped over to this author.

    Thanks!! :D

  6. There I warily watched invariably for carefully yet narrowly placed adverbs... Now thanks to this article I can chill.

  7. Thanks. have wondered about this.

    1. Adverbs are poor, misunderstood little creatures (grin). Words are words, it's how we use them that matters.

    2. I completely agree, I loved your post. It's by far the best explanation of adverb usage in text. I started writing when I was a kid. I thought my aspirations to publish books died a long time ago, but there was a story idea I had that lingered in my head for years. I finally decided to re-write, revise and edit the story. It was probably the best decision I could've made. I hope it works out for me in the end.

  8. It's like when eggs got a bad rap... (anyone remember those commercials?)

    1. Vaguely. Back during the "eggs are evil cholesterol monsters" era if I remember right.