I’m going to say something that will shock you. Adverbs aren’t the enemy. (I know!) It’s even okay to use them in your writing. The trick is in using them well. But even when you don’t, they can serve a very useful purpose.
As bad a reputation as adverbs have, they’re helpful red flags that tell you, “here’s where you have an opportunity to flesh out what your character is doing.” They’re like your brain telling you about the emotional state of your character, and pointing out a place you might want to examine further.
I walked cautiously across the room to the back door.
Here, cautiously is doing the explaining, telling that this person is nervous in some way. You could find another word for “walked cautiously” like tiptoed, or sneaked, or slipped, or whatever, but that only solves the lazy adverb problem. It doesn’t do anything to capitalize on what your subconscious might be telling you. 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 tells you a lot more about what’s going on, which probably saves you words somewhere else. Especially since there’s a decent chance the description in that scene might be a little flat. If you had a better sense of the character’s emotional state and what they were doing, you probably wouldn’t have used the adverb in the first place.
What are those adverbs telling you about your writing?
Look at your adverbs and what those sentences are describing overall, and then think about other ways to get that same idea across. It’s not always about replacing the adverb with a stronger word, though that certainly is an option. Sometimes those adverbs are pinpointing an important aspect that could make the section sing if you fleshed it out.
Examine where you use adverbs and identify what you’re trying to do with them. They’re telling the reader what’s going on, but if what’s in your head doesn’t make it to the page, you can wind up with a reader/writer disconnect.
“That’s just wrong,” Bob said angrily.
Here, the adverb is used to denote anger, but it’s a lazy word because it makes the reader have to decide what Bob’s anger looks like and how he acts when he’s angry. And readers might get it wrong. One reader might think Bob screams and yells, another might think he gets real quiet and dangerous. But if you think Bob cracks jokes so he doesn’t blow up, what you write for him won’t connect correctly with the reader, because they’ll have different ideas in their minds and read the words in that context.
Adverbs can play a helpful role in editing. They’re not sometimes to be avoided at all costs, they’re just your subconscious telling you to “do more here.”
Like your own private editor.
How do you treat adverbs? Avoid them? Use them? Have you ever found them useful?
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, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
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