Make Your Adverbs Work for You
Grammar | Writing

Make Adverbs Work for You

A fellow writer shared a story of an editor who once declared that if she came across an adverb in a writer’s piece, she tossed that piece in the trash. I gulped. How many times had I committed that unpardonable sin? Many, I’m sure. But now, a few more years of writing under my belt, a few more years of teaching young students to write, a few more editing jobs of my own, and I take a different stand. 

Here’s what I’ve concluded: I wouldn’t want to work with an editor who made that kind of edict. 

Let me put on my homeschool mama hat and explain. 

The Role of Adverbs

Adverbs play an important role in the English language. They are only one of eight parts of speech, or one of eight different types of words. Adverbs answer specific questions within a sentence: how, when, where, why, how much, to what extent, and under what condition. (Insert Chicken Dance song here. That’s how I teach my kids the definition of an adverb.) Read that list again. Those are a lot of questions that adverbs answer. A lot. To lop them off and send them to the recycling bin is unnecessary. Why would we eliminate 1/8 of the words from our library?

Instead, I’ve come to think of adverbs like children at a fancy party. The moment they start crawling under the table, standing on their chair or making gagging noises at the sight of broccoli, they need to be taken out of the room. As long as they’re well behaved, they are welcome. 

Editing Your Adverbs

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

Stephen King, On Writing

In Mr. King’s quote, the word that stands out of me is “paved.” If our writing is paved with adverbs, we’re making a critical error in judgment…and in editing. Notice I say “editing.” On our first drafts, we should welcome adverbs. Adverb it up. It’s in the editing that they should be replaced. 

That’s where the real magic of writing happens. It’s also the greatest opportunity. It’s where our writing takes on a unique voice, where we can paint pictures with our words, using our own style.

Let’s look at a few examples of ways to rewrite the same sentiment that an adverb conveys. 

Example:

  • She ran quickly out of the room. 

Edited:

  • She raced out of the room. 
  • She ran out the room like she’d won the lottery. 
  • She ran out of the room, upsetting the Ming vase from its pedestal and causing it to crash to the floor into a thousand shards. 

When to Use Adverbs

With a few keystrokes, we can paint a much more vivid picture and draw our readers into our piece. That’s not to say that we should eliminate all adverbs. We must each decide when and where they are appropriate. Here’s how I use adverbs:

To vary sentence structures. I try to have no more than three sentences in a row with the same sentence structure. For example, if I’ve used a subject-verb sentence structure three times, I might consider opening my next sentence with an adverb transition.

Example:

  • She raced out of the room. She had left her shoes sitting by the front door, but she had no way of retrieving them now. There wasn’t time. Suddenly, she remembered the gun her father had hidden in the top drawer of his desk.  

When space is limited. If I am writing a marketing piece, a social media piece, or a short piece where space is limited, I may not have the space to spend on longer clauses or phrases. I need to get in and get out. That was the case with the devotion I co-authored, Fabulous and Focused. Each day’s entry was only 240 words long. That included the foundational scripture, introduction, the core teaching, the personal application, and the prayer at the end. There wasn’t space for waste. Getting the point across was the goal. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I could be sloppy or produce weak writing, but I had to use adverbs with precision. 

Example: 

  • Never underestimate strong leadership in business. It is the difference between succeeding and failing spectacularly.

In this case, my focus is on the point: strong leadership. My point is not on “failing spectacularly.” My audience, those interested in learning to be strong leaders, already know what “failing spectacularly” means for them. They may be financial planners, salespeople, or writing entrepreneurs. In their minds, they can interpret that for themselves. The point of the piece is more on the universal truths needed for strong leadership. Again, I would use adverbs sparingly to get to the heart of the message. 

When the client wants them. I worked for several years with a company that produced travel books, and the owner loved adverbs. Once again, the pieces were short and quick. There wasn’t room or time for anything extra. The other writers and I used lots of adverbs and adjectives. And you know what, that’s ok. It was her company and her books.

Adverbs to Avoid

Certain adverbs, though, are overused and should be replaced whenever possible: Very, really, and just are a few. These are filler words that weaken good writing. We may write them in our first draft, but we should edit them out as soon as possible. To start, we can delete them from our piece to see if they added anything to the final piece. Often, they haven’t. If we’re not satisfied and believe the sentence needs more oomph, we can replace them with a stronger word or more descriptive clause or phrase. 

Example: 

  • It was a really cold day. 

Edited: 

  • It was a cold day. 
  • It was a frigid day. 
  • It was a day that made your eyelashes freeze together and your toes to go numb in five seconds flat. 

Choose for Yourself

Good writing means making choices. We must do it with intention and care. As you read your pieces, look for ways to replace your adverbs with strong verbs, phrases, clauses, or description. It will strengthen your writing and help you communicate your message with greater clarity.  

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