Why Creative Writers Shouldn’t Use Adverbs – Most of the Time
Many writers have been told never use adverbs. However, they are not told why they shouldn’t use adverbs in a way that helps them make better word choices. There are some situations where an adverb might be the best choice. The real problem with adverbs is writers use them as a crutch and in place of a more in-depth description.
Understanding Adverbs: Definition and Examples
Adverbs are words that modify a verb or adjective. The most common adverbs overused in creative writing are words that end in –ly. For example:
“No,” he said angrily.
“Welcome to Macy’s.” She smiled brightly.
In these examples “angrily” and “brightly” are adverbs. Adverbs that don’t end in –ly or that modify an adjective are not as overused, but can still be a crutch. Here’s an example:
The deep red car rolled by.
“Deep” is an adverb because it’s modifying the color red, which is describing the car. While deep red is an okay description, a more specific color like maroon might be a better choice.
Adverbs as a Crutch: When to Avoid Them
One of the most common places I see writers use adverbs is after speech tags. Characters can never just say something. They have to say it loudly, sadly, bitterly, or with some other emotion. The problem with using adverbs to modify speech tags is you are telling the reader what those characters are feeling instead of showing those feelings. For example:
“Hi, John. How is your day?” Elise said jovially.
This sentence is telling the reader Elise is feeling jovial instead of showing her feelings. By choosing more emotionally charged dialogue, the writer could show how Elise is feeling:
“Are you having a wonderful day, John?” Elise said.
By rephrasing Elise’s question, the dialogue becomes more specific and emotional. “Wonderful” implies the jovial tone and emotion in this example. Asking someone if they are having a wonderful day is also more unique, making this line of dialogue and Elise more memorable. When you use adverbs as crutches in speech tags, you’re avoiding putting that emotion in the dialogue itself and damping the impact of the dialogue. This hinders your character’s voice and reader’s experience.
Adverbs with dialogue tags are also used in place of character’s thoughts and body language. Instead of “said angrily,” show your character clenching their jaw and forcing the word out or thinking mean things about the person they are speaking to. A physical response or thought will reveal more about your character and how they are feeling than a single adverb. Again, get more specific. Don’t tell your reader your character is angry with an adverb; show how that anger feels in their body or what that anger makes them think.
All writers have a filler word or tendency that is the equivalent of “um” or “like” in speech. These words are used to fill the space when we pause to think. For some writers, adverbs become filler words. Actions and events can’t just take place, they must do so swiftly, suddenly, or eventually. For example:
After banging on the door for over an hour, Ann finally gave up.
Here, “finally” is the adverb. It isn’t needed because the writer has already shown Ann banging on the door for an hour. “Finally” doesn’t add new information to the sentence. It only adds an extra word and slows down the pace. The sentence works without it:
After banging on the door for over an hour, Ann gave up.
When an adverb is used as a filler word like this, it can be deleted without having to rewrite the sentence or without losing any needed information. If you’ve been told you need to tighten your writing, you might be overusing filler adverbs. Removing these words will tighten your prose and speed up your pace. In particular, avoid “very” and “really.” These words don’t add any new information or description.
Adverbs Aren’t All Bad: When to Use Adverbs
Anyone who says never use adverbs is doing the writer they are trying to help a disservice. There are certain situations when an adverb might be necessary. One place you can use a few is your back cover blurb. You have limited space, so you need to communicate efficiently. Kevin Hearne uses an adverb in the first sentence of the blurb for Hounded:
Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound.
Later, Hearne explains how a God wants to steal one of Atticus’s possessions and breaks that peace. The reader needs to know Atticus is peaceful, but the author doesn’t have the space to show that and fit all of the other information needed to hook the reader. Here, an adverb is not only acceptable, it is necessary.
Adverbs can also be useful to quickly describe time and distance. Characters are nearly killed by a flying projectile. The exact distance of the projectile in relation to your character might not matter enough to warrant the extra words. An adverb might be all you need to make your point and move on with the scene.
Why an Editor Recommends Avoiding Adverbs Mostly
Adverbs are often a crutch. They are used instead of diving deeper into characters, choosing a more specific phrase, or showing emotion. To eliminate adverbs, you will have to use more words. It’s not a one-to-one exchange. Don’t let the extra words scare you; they were needed to begin with and will give your reader a fuller picture and better understanding of your piece.
That said, you don’t need to eradicate adverbs from your writing. They are a tool, and like other tools in your writing toolbox, they can be overused or used incorrectly. Instead, take a look at when you’re using adverbs and why. Ask yourself if you’re relying on an adverb to convey an emotion when you should be showing that emotion or if the adverb is adding any new information. Then decide if you should replace or eliminate that adverb. Most of the time, you should avoid adverbs to Ignite Your Ink.
What is your opinion on adverbs? Share it in the comments below. Subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for more articles on writing and worksheet on using synonyms to create voice to help you better understand the power of word choice.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.