I love words. If I didn’t, it would make spending all of my time in front of a computer screen or notebook more than a little boring. However, some of us love certain words too much and overuse them. I’m guilty of this crime. I have pet words and bad habits. But being aware of them, I can fix these mistakes in my drafts before I let others see my writing. The most commonly overused word is a part of speech: the adverb.
For those of you in need of a quick reminder of grade school grammar, an adverb is a part of speech that modifies a verb (add-verb, get it?). It is easy to fall into the trap of using too many adverbs with “to be” verbs or weaker verbs rather than stronger action verbs or with “said” for those of us who write dialogue. The adverbs I’m talking about are the “-ly” family. For example:
There was likely more to the story than I wanted to hear.
He gingerly picked up the cellphone.
“What are you doing?” she said angrily.
What can you use instead? You can take out the adverb entirely, as in the first example…
There was more to the story than I wanted to hear.
It’s more succinct, and it has greater tension than when the adverb is used. Look for these common adverbs and ask yourself if you need them: likely, really, very, quite, rather, just, only, and surely. My current bad adverb relationship is with “hastily,” with “rather” coming in a close second.
There are more adverbs than the ones I listed. I’m not advocating that anyone cut all of their adverbs, but as a writer, you should be aware of the ones present in your writing. At times in dialogue (the bits between the quotation marks), they can be fine because a character might use adverbs a lot when speaking. But be careful of them in narrative for they tell lies and make writers lazy. Try the sentences in your narrative with and without these adverb traps and see if you don’t notice a positive difference.
You can also replace adverbs with stronger verbs, and instead use adverbs sparingly. (See what I did there?) So the second example becomes…
He plucked up the cellphone.
I substituted my weak verb and adverb for the stronger, descriptive verb plucked.
The third one is trickier. The trouble with using adverbs in dialogue tags is that it leads to telling instead of showing. Sometimes you should stick with “said” and add some action in the tag, or perhaps have an action alone that portrays the emotion. So the third example above could change instead to…
“What are you doing?” She snatched the phone from his hands.
or, if you feel you must…
“What are you doing?” she yelled.
Be careful with using the last one. Strong action verbs do work in tags and as alternative ways to say things, but if you use “shout” or a varying derivative for every time your character yells, the verb starts to lose its effectiveness. In other words, when in doubt, don’t use a tag except to identify the speaker or if you must have an action going on at the same time as the speaking. Dialogue is one of my weak points as a writer, so I am in a constant battle to get this last one right. If you’re not sure what works best, read it out loud. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.
And thus ends today’s lesson on adverbs. If anyone has more advice about controlling your adverbs or other “writing trap” they struggle with, please, leave a comment! I’ll be covering some more common pitfalls in the weeks to come.