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ProAm Tip #31 - Adverbs

October 19, 2017

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, determiner, noun phrase, clause, or sentence. Adverbs typically express manner, place, time, frequency, degree, level of certainty, etc., answering questions such as how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and to what extent?.

 

Adverbs are evil. Adverbs should die. Adverbs are a rookie’s tool. Adverbs are linguistic Hitler.

 

Okay, that last one might have gone too far. But you take my meaning, I hope. Adverbs are not a good tool for a writer. But why? Why do writers hate adverbs? Why to so many people use them?

 

I struggle with adverbs on a daily basis. It’s a crutch that I lean upon heavily. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re the devil, and I use them an awful lot. But I believe they belong in your first draft, not your second or third.

 

Consider the following:

‘John slowly followed the car in front of him.’

 

Okay. You know the who, the what, the where. You know the how. It’s simple, clean, and it tells you what’s what. But it’s imprecise. That’s a strange thing to say about a word which tells you exactly HOW John’s following, isn’t it? He’s following slowly.

 

‘John trailed the car in front of him.’

 

Trailed is a more precise description of what John is doing than ‘slowly followed.’ John is not in a hurry. John is in a line of cars, perhaps at rush hour, perhaps just on his way to the store.

 

In the mind of the writer, the action takes place. How to convey that action: that’s writing. How BEST to convey that action: that’s craftsmanship.

 

‘John crept behind the car in front of him.’

 

‘Crept’ is an even more precise description. It conveys meaning. Subtext. John isn’t ‘slowly’ following. He’s not ‘trailing’. He’s ‘creeping’. Creeping suggests something furtive about his action. Secretive. Possibly nefarious.

Writing should be more than simply recording events. Writing is not recording. Typing is recording. Writing is crafting scene. Story. Character. Writing is creation. The essence of creation is the artist’s vision.

 

Adverbs are place holders. You should consider every adverb you write. Not “Damn, another adverb” but instead “okay… what’s a good word for ‘slowly followed’ that might indicate a subtext or behavior that I wish to convey?”

 

Adverbs are not evil. Adverbs are your friends. Adverbs are placeholders in your first draft so you don’t have to stop. So you don’t need to slow down or stare into space trying to find that one word that will convey the meaning-laden intent with which you want to imbue your character or scene.

 

Adverbs are lazy. Adverbs are a signal to the reader that you, the writer, are not trying hard enough. That you’re giving your work less than one hundred percent of your effort. Your book, or story, or whatever, DESERVES your best effort.

 

Not everything you write is going to be your best work. But everything you write can be your best craftsmanship. A well-written piece of mediocre writing will resonate far more than a brilliant piece of crap with sloppy writing and lackadaisical (I’m bringing that word back, I love that word) description.

 

Some synonyms for crept:  steal, sneak, slip, slink, sidle, edge, inch. 

 

Consider:

 “John snuck closer to the car in front of him.”

 

“John slipped closed to the car in front of him.”

 

 “John edged closer to the car in front of him.”

 

 ‘slowly followed’ is replaced with a more precise, meaningful word. Each lends flavor to the work and intimates a shaded meaning.

Adverbs are fine, until you need to be GOOD at what you’re doing.

 

Your job isn’t to eliminate adverbs, per se. It’s to discover the best word to convey the subtleties of your meaning to your reader. 

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