Friday, October 24, 2014

Cleverly Avoiding Adverbs

If you were in a high school English class in the US in the last few decades, then chances are good that you’ve been told about two of the most hated and pernicious plagues of English writing: the passive voice and overuse of adverbs. We’ll talk about the passive voice another day; today we’re going to discuss adverb abuse.

First, to all of those English teachers who have spent decades trying to hammer this concept—that adverbs weaken writing and should be avoided—into the minds of their students: good job! To be honest, I almost never have a problem with the amounts of adverbs that I find in the manuscripts I’m given. My impression is that the current crop of would-be professional writers has learned this lesson well.

If you’ve never heard of this problem, here’s the breakdown: adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs (or even entire sentences). You can usually pick them out by the –ly ending.

Modifying a verb: He stumbled awkwardly up the hill.
Modifying an adjective: Ashley was overly cautious and tended to frustrate her friends.
Modifying another adverb: The quarterback was playing very poorly.
Modifying a sentence: Fortunately, we were able to get the car started again.

The problem with adverbs is that they can be redundant, can lengthen sentences to awkward proportions, or can be a crutch for lazy writers to lean on.  However, they aren’t necessarily as evil as your English teacher (and Steven King) might have made them seem.  They’re a part of the English language for a good reason, and they can be used to good effect—you just need to learn to use them well.  Here’s some tips:

Avoid redundant adverbs: This is one of the primary ways in which adverbs weaken writing—they tend to be repetitive and redundant. Here’s some examples:

     My stomach growled hungrily.
     She smiled happily.
     He stumbled awkwardly up the hill.

We don’t need to be told that a stomach growls hungrily—hunger is what the stomach growl indicates in the first place. Look how much stronger these sentences become without the adverbs:

     My stomach growled.
     She smiled.
     He stumbled up the hill.

Remember: longer or more complex doesn’t mean better. If an adverb isn’t adding new and unique information to the sentence, it should be removed.

Ask yourself—is this adverb the focal point of the sentence?  Even if an adverb isn’t redundant, you should take a moment to consider: do I really need it? The best adverbs are the crux of the sentence, conveying the information on which the sentence turns. For instance, from earlier:

     Ashley was overly cautious and tended to frustrate her friends.

The fact that Ashley is too cautious is the point of the sentence. Without that adverb, this sentence would be uncertain. Are Ashley’s friends appropriately-cautious people who are frustrated by her extreme caution, or are they frustrated because she is responsible and they are actually incautious? The adverb distinguishes the meaning of the entire sentence, and could be worth keeping.

Weird, right?

Avoid intensifiers: Most adverbs that modify other adverbs are intensifiers—words that add intensity. Very, extremely, and really are examples of intensifiers that are over-used. More often than not (but not always), they can be dropped without hurting the sentence.

Avoid coupling adverbs with “said” in dialog: I’d guess that four times out of five, when an editor gets annoyed with a writer’s overuse of adverbs, it’s because they did this:

     “No, I don’t want to,” she said quickly.
     “You’re wrong!” he said loudly.
     “Let’s get out of here,” he said quietly.

This formula (said + adverb) should be avoided. On rare occasions (very rare occasions), it will be the best way to get information across—the rest of the time, it’s just going to annoy any editors you submit to. Get rid of it wherever possible.

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