Writing Style Outcasts: Adverbs

High school cliques appear in most young adult fiction. And in real life. Yes, they are tropes found in 13 Reasons Why, The Hate You Give and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but that’s only because cliques actually do exist in high schools.

Yes, the popular kids roam around like royalty because they’ve managed to carve out their kingdom in those formative years of teenangsters. Then there’s always the uncool kids. I was probably in one of many sub-cliques of unnoticeable students. It’s a cliche, but based in truth.

So if I were to compare high school cliques to grammar, I’d have to say there are definitely the popular groups of writing style: nouns and verbs; commas and periods; showing and action. They roam the halls of fiction writing with their chests puffed out because everyone uses them. They are essential.

But, like all high schools, there are the not so popular parts of writing style. The nerds of writing. The geeks of grammar. The outcasts of creative prose.

Adverbs. Adjectives. Semicolons. And others. These aspects of writing are the pariahs of creative fiction. Writers treat them like garbage because we’ve all seen those articles telling us to avoid them.

But I believe they are needed. The question is: When do I use them?

I’ve created this series to argue that these outcasts of writing style are necessary. They exist for a purpose. I want to explore the answer to the question, “So when are we suppose to use these outcasts?”

Here we go. Today I’m going to talk about adverbs.

Adverbs

Wow. When it comes to the outcasts of writing style, adverbs really take a hit. Even Stephen King himself lays a curse upon them in his highly recommended On Writing.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs . . .”

Stephen King, On Writing

And while I don’t disagree with King, I believe this animosity toward the part of speech describing verbs, adjectives and other adverbs stems from a reaction against their misuse.

Most people, including me, overuse adverbs such as “really”, “very”, “literally”, “obviously” or “actually.” I go through my rough drafts and take them out. And any other -ly words that weaken what I’m saying. My writing will be stronger without them.

The very happy man skipped down the sidewalk.

Instead:

The happy man skipped down the sidewalk.

Or the writer may play matchmaker and plop them next to a weak verb or adjective when a stronger one will do.

mildly flavored coffee

Instead:

bland coffee

Or:

walked erratically

Instead:

meandered

Or replace the weak adverb-verb combination with an action.

“Would you like for me to give you a demonstration?” she said seductively.

Instead:

She reached out and stroked his forearm. “Would you like for me to give you a demonstration?”

Okay, so I’ve covered how not to use an adverb. When is it right to use one?

If taking the adverb out of the sentence changes its meaning, leave it in.

He walked quietly around the sleeping bodies on the floor.

I could get away with leaving “quietly” in this sentence because enhances the verb “walked.” Then I could replace “walked quietly” with something like “crept”–if that is what he was doing.

So, as long as the adverb isn’t redundant, keep it.

If it adds a vital piece of information, keep it.

If removing it changes the meaning of the sentence, keep it.

If it paints a clearer picture, keep it.

If you want to stress a point, keep it.

Workshop

Take a draft of a short story or novel chapter and either take out or modify any adverbs you find. If you decide to leave an adverb untouched, make sure it is for one of the “keep it” reasons listed above.

Links

I’m only scratching the surface. These links lead to more examples for when to use, and not use, adverbs. Some of the titles sound anti-adverb, but in the end they say when it’s okay to use them. See what I mean?

Photo by Stanley Morales from Pexels

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