Adverb Advice: Use Carefully

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Strong writing relies on strong verbs and strong nouns. Usually, that means the most specific, appropriate word possible. For example, poodle is better than dog; parrot, better than bird. And, stumble is better than walk; pirouette, better than dance. Modifiers like adjectives and adverbs should only be used after you have used the most specific verb possible.

Not: The small dog ran quickly into the kitchen.
But: The poodle raced into the kitchen.

Not: The dancer turned around quickly.
But: The ballerina pirouetted.

Of course, the real test is the voice, the audience and the tone of your story. If you’re writing for the very young, they may not understand the more specific words and you’ll need to make decisions about what is appropriate.

That brings us to adverbs, which modify verbs. If you can replace a verb + adverb combination with a stronger verb, you should usually do it.

Not: He ran quickly.
But: He jogged.

Part of the reason for changing is the stronger verb gives the reader a better image of the action occurring. Is the person running, jogging, racing, trotting, or galloping? Each word carries slightly different connotations and one of them will be more appropriate in your story.

Another reason to avoid adverbs is it’s one way to get rid of wordiness your writing. Stronger verbs allow you to trim the word count.

Sometimes, an adverb does add to a piece. If the voice and rhythm of your sentence, paragraph and passage requires a couple more syllables, one choice is to add an adverb. In this situation, evaluate every possible work choice–and add an adverb if it works.

It’s also possible that the writing needs an adverb simply to make better sense.

After a stressful day at the office, he jogged leisurely through the park.

The jogger is moving quickly, but not too fast, taking his time after a long, busy day. The word “leisurely” is needed to fully express what is happening.

Don’t be afraid of adverbs; they are useful. But keep them in their place and don’t overuse them.

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2 Comments
  • Rich Weatherly
    July 2, 2012

    Thanks for sharing!
    This is the most compelling explanation I’ve read on the use of adverbs. It is clear, concise and balanced :-)
    Rich Weatherly

  • Janet Smart
    July 2, 2012

    Good post! And, I agree, although I don’t usually need to trim my word count. I need to beef up my writing and add word count.