Kathy of Fine Tune Your Fiction, a professional critique and developmental editing service, has kindly given us permission to feature her article on adverbs. We hope you enjoy.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice I see is that you should never use adverbs. They make your writing weak. They’re lazy. They’re telling not showing. To some degree, people who say this are absolutely right. Adverbs often are all those things. But not always.
This may be controversial, but adverbs can, under the right circumstances, be beneficial and even necessary. To explain this better, let’s look at how adverbs weaken your writing first.
One of the ways adverbs can weaken work is that they often prop up a weak verb, or poor word choice. To show you what I mean, read these two sentences. Which do you think offers the strongest image to the reader?
1. He walked slowly down the road.
2. He meandered down the road.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the second sentence was the strongest. The reason? ‘Slowly’ doesn’t really give us much. It could mean anything. Are we talking snail pace, or a leisurely stroll? ‘Slow’ seems like it’s descriptive but it’s vague and doesn’t tell the reader much, whereas ‘meander’ gives us a definite picture.
Word choice can have a huge impact on your writing. A man who is ‘meandering’ is going to be imagined differently to a man who ‘sashays’. Each word suggests something different about that character and the scenario at hand. Somebody who sashays is confident – they’re walking like they own the place and they’re proud of it. It also suggests that character might be sassy or spirited. By contrast, a character who meanders gives the impression of somebody who is purposeless, or sad, or maybe tired. It also suggests this character is quite laid back or perhaps feeling directionless. Both these words mean ‘to walk slowly’ but they offer a uniquely different image.
If you are using an adverb, double check the verb before it. Are you using the right word to accurately convey what is happening? For example, are you using ‘run’ when ‘dashed’, ‘raced’, or ‘bolted’ might fit better?
Onto the next complaint about adverbs: telling. A lot of the time, adverbs are a sign of telling, and where possible, you should always show.
Consider the following sentence:
‘She held her baby lovingly.’
This sounds like it’s showing us something, right? But does it really? What does ‘lovingly’ look like for this character? Not everyone shows love the same way. Additionally, you shouldn’t need to tell your reader your character was lovingly holding their baby, they should be able to infer it from the character’s actions and how they interact with said baby.
So, how could we fix this sentence? First, let’s take care of the weak verb ‘held’ and switch it with ‘cradled’ because that word suggests a tender, careful action.
Now we have:
‘She cradled her baby lovingly’.
Better. But there is still room for improvement.
Next, we need to think about how to show how loving she is being to her baby rather than telling the reader. How does this character show affection? She might stroke her baby’s face, or smile at them, or sing. She might even say something that indicates her love. Parents often speak to their infants, even though they know they can’t understand them. Remember, there are loving phrases beyond making the statement ‘I love you’. They might say things like ‘You’re beautiful’ or ‘I’ll never let anyone hurt you’ or ‘I’ll do anything for you’ or even ‘You’re mummy’s little boy/girl’.
Showing how your character lovingly holds their baby is important because a) It gives a vivid picture for the reader and b) It tells us a little about what this character is like.
So, let’s tackle that sentence again.
‘She cradled her baby, smiling as she stroked a finger across his soft cheek.’
You’re not telling the reader this character is holding the baby lovingly, but instead showing it. Not only does ‘cradle’ carry connotations of holding something tenderly, but the character’s actions show how loving she is, and builds character in a way that ‘She held her baby lovingly’ just doesn’t.
Another time adverbs weaken sentences are when they act as what I call ‘emotional qualifiers.’ This is when the adverb tells us how a character feels instead of showing us. For example:
“How dare you!” He said angrily.
The reason the adverb weakens this sentence is because it tells instead of showing. Based on context clues such as what the character is reacting to, what they say, and their body language, the reader should know this character is angry. If you have to tell your reader the character is angry, you didn’t show well enough.
How will the reader know they are angry? First, think about what they say: ‘How dare you!’ This is a pretty good indicator that the character is angry because it’s generally an angry statement, something people say when somebody has offended them. This should be their first clue. However, this statement could also be sarcastic or joking. How will your reader know?
Body language is a key component to this. What expression is this character making? What gestures are they making? Perhaps they are scowling. Maybe they jab their finger at whoever they are talking to for emphasis, or maybe they clench their fists. These are all signs of somebody who is angry as opposed to somebody who is joking.
“How dare you!” He said, slamming his fist on the table, eyebrows drawn tightly together.
We haven’t told the reader this character is angry. We showed them through his facial expression and his body language. This is stronger than simply telling your reader this character is angry.
By now I’m sure you’re wondering when adverbs are acceptable. This one isn’t so simple because it can depend on a lot of things. To make this easier, I’ll offer a few examples.
Here’s an example of an adverb which doesn’t necessarily weaken a sentence:
She sipped her tea daintily.
This could potentially be an acceptable use of an adverb if it were being used appropriately. For example, imagine your protagonist is going to a tavern to try to recruit a warrior who is renowned as the most feared, brutal warrior in the land, but when they arrive in the dark, seedy tavern, they see them drinking their tea daintily. Such a comedic moment only works when it’s snappy. A drawn-out description showing them drinking daintily would ruin the comedy beat.
This doesn’t just work for comedic moments either. Sometimes an adverb can offer a brief flash that something isn’t right or that your reader needs to pay close attention. For example, let’s say your character is talking to an old woman who has shown through her actions and mannerisms to be kind, but suddenly she ‘grins sharply’. This gives a quick clue to the reader that this woman might not be as kind as she seems.
One of the reasons adverbs weaken writing is because they are ‘telling’ rather than showing, and any amount of telling will wrench a reader out of immersion. However, the example above shows how you can use that to your advantage. Using the adverb to tell them about that sharp grin means the reader will be jarred enough to notice, and this will give them a sense of unease about the woman.
Ultimately, yes, adverbs can weaken writing and ruin immersion, but sometimes, you can create interesting effects doing so.
The best advice I can give if you’re not sure whether you should be using an adverb is:
1. Check the sentence to see if there are any weak verbs the adverb is propping up. Do you have any generic verbs like ‘walk’ or ‘run’ for example that you could replace with something more dynamic?
2. Is it integral that whatever you are describing must be pictured this way? Using adverbs means you are dictating what your reader must imagine, so only do it if it is important. Otherwise, try to give your reader the space to envision things how they want to unless it is essential they visualise something a specific way.
3. What are you trying to accomplish with the adverb? Is it to create an interesting effect, are you trying to create a striking introduction to your character, or are you trying to make your description a little more poetic or prosaic? If it’s the latter, you probably don’t need it.
With all that being said, my final advice is if you truly believe that adverb is essential, then keep it. Feel free to ignore the three points above. It’s your work, and only you know what’s best.
Reading is subjective. Some people hate adverbs, and some people appreciate them. What’s more, there are certain genres where you need adverbs because it’s important the readers picture things a specific way. Crime stories, especially crime procedural novels, often have to rely on adverbs because sometimes there are clues they need a reader to imagine a specific way so they can follow the plot and put the pieces together to solve the mystery at the end.
The ‘no adverbs’ rule probably started as a way to stop new writers from going in over their head. It is far easier to say, ‘Don’t use adverbs’ rather than ‘It’s okay to use adverbs but only under certain circumstances that as a new writer you are not experienced enough to recognise yet.’ However, it seems to have turned into an absolute rule, and I’ve never been a fan of absolute rules when it comes to writing.
Yes, there are ‘rules’ when it comes to writing, and they are usually there for a good reason. However, as an old mentor once said to me: know the rules of writing so you know how to break them.
I generally recommend new writers avoid adverbs so they can practise showing instead of telling. When learning something new, it’s important to start with the basics and work your way up, and using adverbs well is an advanced skill. But that’s only a recommendation. Writing is all about pushing boundaries and playing around with new ways to tell a story, so I don’t think anyone should dictate what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ when it comes to writing.
About: My name is Kathy. I have over 10 years’ experience as a critiquer and developmental editor. I also run workshops on creative writing through Norwich Writers’ Circle. I offer a professional critique and developmental editing service where I looked through your manuscript and examine content such as plot, worldbuilding, character, scene, and settings. I help identify issues such as plot holes, flat characters, poor worldbuilding, or general weaknesses in the overall structure of the story. I offer suggestions on how to resolve any issues found and will work with client to improve them.
If you are interested in hiring me as an editor, visit my website: www.finetuneyourfiction.com