One of my first writing teachers forbade use of the word very, a rule he underlined by asking us to compare the two following sentences:
He was an honest man.
He was a very honest man.
In the first sentence, honesty is absolute: one either is or is not honest, and this man is. But in the second honesty has become relative, with the man in question at the “more honest” end of the spectrum—but not, perhaps, completely honest? The attempt to emphasize his honesty by using very backfires.
Many writing experts agree that adverbs can weaken rather than strengthen the point being made. “The adverb is not your friend,” states Steven King, one of the leaders of the movement to avoid adverbs. Some go so far as to say it is the mark of the novice writer to use adverbs when they are not necessary and even redundant: to have someone “shout loudly” or “stomp heavily.” A few advise avoiding adverbs in dialogue altogether to avoid such errors.
Overuse of adverbs can also make a writer lazy. It’s easier to throw in an adverb instead of providing enough description that the reader can imagine how someone is behaving.
But there is a middle ground between overuse and avoiding all adverbs that most writing mavens fail to address! Used with care, the right adverb can add zing and depth. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” is far more interesting than “To go where no one has gone before.” We understand from this adverb that the crew of the Enterprise is courageous and undaunted, that they welcome challenges. It does precisely what an adverb is meant to do: it tells us how an action is undertaken.
Lois McMaster Bujold shows us when to describe action and when to use an adverb in a passage from The Curse of Chalion. The protagonist has been seriously wounded and is recuperating, when:
A great party of persons shuffled into his chamber, attempting to make themselves quiet and gentle, like a parade gone suddenly shy.
Any adverb attached to the verb “shuffled” would fall far short of evoking the image provided by her simile of the parade. But later on, she reinforces this image by saying:
The mob withdrew, tiptoeing loudly.
Her use of an adverb that contradicts the verb makes us slow down and think about the scene again. Plus, it’s funny! Much more enjoyable than if she had written “The mob withdrew, trying and failing to tiptoe quietly.”
The right adverb enhances prose. The key is to use adverbs deliberately. Think of them as seasoning. Don’t use them to emphasize what the verb already implies; that’s like throwing cayenne pepper on top of a jalapeno. Don’t use them to avoid the time and effort required to describe the scene adequately; that’s like using a lot of imitation lemon extract instead of grated zest and fresh lemon juice when baking lemon bars. It won’t taste like the real thing.
Above all, don’t oversalt your prose with tired adverbs like very, really, and obviously.
Instead, use adverbs sparingly and deliberately. Use them to evoke the manner in which a thing is done or to tell your reader something about your character’s personality. Use them as Bujold does, providing a twist that makes the reader blink and see things differently. Just as a master chef surprises and delights diners through innovative use of fresh herbs and unusual spices, seek to surprise and delight readers with your thoughtful choice of adverbs.
Jody Gentian Bower, PhD, has been an editor and writer for over thirty years. She is the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story (Quest Books, 2015). She has contributed chapters to three other books, written a newspaper column, published many essays, and taught writing classes. She now focuses on what she calls “elevated editing,” a mix of developmental editing and coaching; her goal is not just to help authors avoid mistakes, but to help them grow as writers. She is at work on a book about female power in fantasy and sci-fi films.
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