The Perils of Adverbs


New writers seem to love using adverbs. If you read someone’s first drafts or early writings (including my own) you will often find that everyone walks softly and treads lightly and moves stealthily. These extra –ly words are known as adverbs or (sometimes) modifiers.

So what exactly does an adverb do?

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An adverb adds an extra layer of description or judgement to your descriptions. In other words it gives you a bit of extra information to the verb. While they do have their place in creative writing you’ll find that will often weaken the impact of your writing instead of enhancing your description. There are words which come under the category of adverbs which aren’t -ly words (here’s a useful website that shows you both adverbs and their uses). In this post, however,  I’m only going to focus on the -ly adverbs.

First let’s look at this sentence:

She walked towards the streets, holding out her metal cup and cardboard sign.
“Change please. Sir, can you spare some change?”

Now this works okay so far. I could add more description and atmosphere but there are at least two ways to do this:

1. Add in a few adverbs (Not recommended)

She walked slowly towards the streets, weakly holding out her metal cup and cardboard sign.
“Change please,” she said desperately. “Sir, can you spare some change?”

This version has lost some of the momentum of the previous example because of the extra adverbs (slowly, weakly, desperately). I’ve also added an extra `she said’ to it which splits two parts of what the character was saying although I felt it wasn’t relevant in the first version.

2. Add in more adjectives or more action

She walked towards the dusky streets, holding out her tarnished metal cup and battered cardboard sign.
“Change please,” she said, her voice weak with illness. “Sir, can you spare some change?”

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This particular one shows more of the character and the atmosphere but doesn’t use any –ly words. If you look at the difference you will notice that all three of the examples used sound different when you read them and have a different feel to them or effect. Altering the structure and the words used in a sentence will change the whole effect of the sentence or paragraphs. You often have to play around with your words to see which works best.

You may even prefer to keep a sentence sparse and with little description, like in the first example. This is in itself a choice of style. You might remove most of the adverbs but keep one or two that you feel is needed for what you are trying to get across .

This is fine. The decision is always your own and will vary depending on the story

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BUT do take care not to overuse them. The majority of the time another order of the sentence or using another word will sound better. Try to get into the habit of limiting adverbs when you feel they are unnecessary. You’ll see a difference pretty much straight away in your writing style.

Quick Writing Exercise

Play around with the sentence below:

She watched moodily as the chilly crowds waited in the freezing rain  grumpily for the eleven o’clock train.

Have a go at removing the adverbs. Alter words and try to increase its impact. See what you think of the changes you’ve made. Are there any adverbs you want to keep?

Don’t forget! An adverb may sometimes be the better word. It depends on which you think works for you.

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6 thoughts on “The Perils of Adverbs

  1. I’ve heard this advice before, but to see it explained like this is really helpful. To me, what stands out between the adverb- and adjective-laden sentences is a lesson in show/don’t tell. That is, the adverbs make thing much more literal, telling the reader that she is desperate and weak. While the adjectives, describing her things as battered and tarnished, get the point across in a more subtle and indirect way. Cool.

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