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 aren't counting your adverbs and if you go over a secret number they reject you. What they are doing, is reading your story to see if it makes them 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.
Adverbs are often misused in dialog. We've all seen (and probably written):
"I hate you," she said angrily.In this instance, there are plenty of great ways a writer 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. By using an ambiguous adverb, not only are you falling into lazy writing, you're missing 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 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. What you pair with this adverb will make or break it.
She clenched her fists so tight her knuckles went white. "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 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.
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.
Sometimes the rhythm of the sentence needs those extra syllables to achieve what the author wants. (more of that here). 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.
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 is 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 can lead the reader down the wrong path.
Adverbs are powerful, but don't be afraid of them. Just learn to use them well and your stories will be better for it. And you won't stress over it so much either.
More on adverbs here.