Adverbs are the tools of a lazy writer. Mark Twain.
Adverbs tell us your verb is wrong.1
Adverb types are as plentiful as planets in our solar system. For now, let’s focus on those pesky adverbs ending in “–ly”. Sometimes when I’m editing I’ll press Ctrl-F and locate all the words with “ly”, then hack every one of them. You know, Here’s a sampling of adverbs ripe for slashing: basically, blissfully, convincingly, drowsily, flirtatiously, harshly, horribly, lovingly, quickly, restlessly, shrewdly, airily, nicely, sweetly, smilingly and gobs more. You would do well never again write “very” and “really”–the two most useless adverbs in the language.
Let’s look at how useless some adverbs are in our writing.
Take, for instance, the sentence: It’s a very warm day.
Once we write that a day is warm, does it being very warm change the day in the reader’s mind? The word very does nothing other than intensify the word that follows it and it does so poorly. Often, the word very and the word it modifies can both be eliminated and replaced with a single word that is more precise: It’s a sweltering day.
In this sentence, we don’t need the word very or the word warm. The adjective “sweltering”does the trick. It’s clearer and more concise, which is the mark of strong writing.
How about this lousy excuse for a sentence:
“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked flirtatiously.
It’s a horrid sentence. Doesn’t it make you want to gag?The adverb flirtatiously, besides being hard to say, tells the reader how she asked the question. A better way to write it should show how she asked:
“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.
It may not be the greatest sentence ever written, but showing the character batting her eyelashes is better than telling readers she asked a question flirtatiously. Visual cues show readers what’s happening; adverbs just tell them. Good writers want to show what’s happening whenever possible to make their writing vivid and easier to visualize.
(Editor’s note: I’ll bet my friend Suze will read this post and purposely comment with a sickly plethora of ridiculously useless adverbs.)
1Portions of the book Write Tight by William Brohough were the inspiration for this Write On Target post.