Avoid Those Lovely Adverbs

And Have Fun Doing It

By Annette Rey

Why do professionals advise writers to limit the use of adverbs? Aren’t adverbs descriptive words? Don’t they give a visual to readers of what is going on?

These are good words. Personally, I like them. My lazy side prefers them.

And that is the point. It’s harder to write a sentence that shows the reader what is going on. It takes more thought to find descriptive words. It takes more time. But the results are worth it. You will have more pride in your work and the reader will have a better reading experience.

So let’s look at a few of those adverbs and learn substitutions for them.

First, adverbs are assistance words, typically serving as modifiers, to other words or phrases and usually end in -ly.

A simple example is: Blindly, she reached for the doorknob.

A better sentence is: The vinegar burned her eyes as her trembling hands fumbled to find the door.

These extra words help the reader become more immersed in the moment. You want your reader to identify with your characters and their experiences. So you must paint the picture for them.

In lots of writing I see the word suddenly. 1) He came upon me suddenly. 2) Suddenly, the lights failed. I tend to use that word myself and must self-edit. Sometimes I leave it in when I think it just feels right. That is your writer’s prerogative, but this might bristle a contest judge. Use adverbs judiciously.

Take a series of sentences and re-do them. Eliminate every adverb and add imaginary facts that would replace that word. Or try the following sentences. Do not limit yourself to one sentence. Write an entire paragraph. Write until you are satisfied with your creation.

* Betsy rapidly ran after the school bus. (Hint: Perhaps describe Betsy’s dress as it blew in the wind behind her, describe her feet as they moved, or the blur of her shoe colors as a result of her frenzied pace.)

* Mrs. Pentworthy sat dejectedly in her chair. (Hint: Just the name implies to me an elderly spinster sitting in an overstuffed, high-backed chair with a yellowed doily behind her head. Describe her body posture to indicate depression and sadness – but don’t use those words. Don’t say she is depressed or sad. Convey those emotions instead by directing the reader to posture, facial expression, what her hands are doing, the atmosphere in the room, etc. Another idea to help with the mood of the moment – say she did not make a motion to turn on the lamp as the evening was darkening outside. This non-action helps to show paralyzing depression. People suffering from depression prefer to sit in the dark. Light intrudes on their down mood.)

* The car slowly slid to the edge of the cliff. (Hint: Now here’s a good line to improve. First, eliminate the adverb, of course. Then, show in slow motion the action of the car. Break it down into minute grinding sounds of the tires over loose gravel… And then, what happens next? This can be an exciting action scene. Or it might be saved at the last moment. It’s up to you.)

* Judy and Phyllis teased the seven-year-old mercilessly. (Hint: This sentence doesn’t give me much information. Are the girls being good-natured with the child or are they engaging in destructive bullying? Eliminate the adverb and be specific with the words you choose.)

So that’s it. Rather easier than you thought, I bet.

Looking back over the examples, can you see how the writing was enriched by elaborating and creating a scene? Not only are you improving your ability to paint a vivid picture, you are increasing your word count – and not for word count sake.

Exercises like these help you flex your vocabulary and train your brain to go deep into the page in front of you. Your mental focus will improve. As you train yourself, words and scenes will evolve with less effort and, in the end, save you time, too.

It seems the professionals are steering us in the right direction, wouldn’t you agree?








One thought on “Avoid Those Lovely Adverbs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s