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  • Writer's pictureCeril N Domace

Adverbs and Strong Writing

We've all heard lecture upon lecture about the evils of adverbs. How they're a sign of weak writing and we should do everything in our power to avoid them. I won't say I agree with that, but don't go expecting me to launch a diatribe against that opinion either.

Adverbs are, just like gerunds or contractions, parts of writing that hold an important place in the English language. Their use or misuse can have a huge impact on characterization, mood, and voice that bleeds through to the reader.

Thus, there are three main things to consider when you're trying to decide whether to remove that adverb or not.

1. Necessary vs unnecessary adverbs

Essentially, a necessary adverb is one that modifies the verb in a way that changes it's meaning. The most common example is sadly vs happily. A happy smile(smiled happily) isn't surprising. Most smiles are happy, so this adverb in unnecessary for conveying new information. A sad smile(smiled sadly) suggests that the smile is different than a normal smile. Sadly conveys an emotion we wouldn't normally get out of smiled and thus makes the adverb a necessary one.

The issue then becomes learning to recognize necessary and unnecessary verbs. Even then, a necessary adverb might not be the best word for you.

2. The best word for the job

Roughly half of storytelling is choosing the right word or words for what you're trying to do. A building might be spooky, yes, but that doesn't really tell us anything. Gather a half dozen people in a room and you'll hear a half dozen different personal definitions for spooky. However, if you said the old Victorian building was falling to bits, that half the windows were broken, and that the porch emits a faint odor of death—that gives off a specific creepy vibe.

Of course, sometimes you want or need to keep things brief. An adult will verbalize things and be creeped out by different things than a child would. Therefore, an adult might comment on the ragged nature of the building and the odor because they understand what those things represent, but a child might think it's a cool place to explore depending on the time of day.

Frequently, adverbs aren't the best word for the job. Contrariwise, there are times when no other word but an adverb will do.

For example, there's smiling sadly as shone above, where there's no other word in the English language that really encompasses that feeling as well, but there's also smiled happily, which can easily turn into a broad/excited/ecstatic grin instead. It all depends on the feeling you're going for.

There will be adverbs that are easy to replace and ones that make you want to rip your hair out.

My advice is to try a few different things when trying to decide whether you need to take out an adverb or not. Copy the sentence in question a few times. Leave one as is, remove the adverb in the next, and replace it with a non-adverb modifier(broad, short, fast, etc., etc.) instead. You may want to do a few of the last one if there are a lot of options.

Then move on. Work on another part. Then, when you feel you've had a break from the sentence, go back to it. Read over your options and decide which really fits the the vibe you're going for. It might still be a struggle, but removing yourself from it for even a moment will refresh you and make it easier to choose.

Alternatively, you might be so tired of thinking by that point that you just want to get it over with. Both are viable options.

3. Changing trends

If there's one thing that's certain in life it's that language and styles change. You might listen to modern writing 'rules' and say that they're wrong because so and so didn't do that and they wrote a classic so I don't have to listen to those rules either, but let me be honest with you. You're probably not going to write a classic and before you can break the rules you need to understand why they exist in the first place.

Poor relationships with commas, love affairs with adverbs, and descriptions that go on for six pages worked for them because that's what people expected out of their writers. Modern readers are a bit more conservative with their words and expect a lot of bang for their buck as it were.

Regardless, appreciate the classics, but also remember how poorly they're received by most people nowadays. They were wildly popular once and still are to an extent, but now they're considered thick, dull, and boring.

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