It’s a mistake most of us make: overusing adverbs in an attempt to make our writing sound better, slicker. It doesn’t work. Writing that suffers from adverb overload is often weak, verbose and hard to read. It tries too hard to impress. In the process, it loses the magic spell that a tightly written piece can cast on its readers. You’ve heard the expression ‘purple prose’? Adverbs are the key culprits!
Even professional writers tend to stray down this dangerous road. However, they’re usually aware of it and manage to steer themselves out again before too much damage is done. So why do we do it?
Maybe it’s the way we learn to write from a very young age. Teachers encourage us to broaden our vocabulary – a worthy goal, of course. But one that can lead to adverbs getting more than their fair share of big red ticks. And nothing is more rewarding to a budding writer than praise! Or maybe it’s insecurity. Maybe if I toss in some long words – like wistfully, hopelessly, recklessly – people will think I know what I’m talking about. They’ll think I can write. It doesn’t work this way. Let me show you why.
What are adverbs?
First a quick grammar refresher. Verbs are ‘doing words’. They convey action (glide, think, sneeze) and states of being (am, be, is, was, were). All sentences contain verbs, even this one word sentence: ‘Jump!’
Adverbs give you more information about the verb. How did he jump? When? To what extent? They are the words that often end in ‘ly’ – quickly, vigorously, suddenly. Writers tend to use them when they think a sentence is not clear enough. Take this example.
Jane walked to the door.
Hmm. This tells us who did what. But it doesn’t tell us how. Quick, let’s add an adverb!
Jane walked quickly to the door.
Jane walked softly to the door.
Jane walked aggressively to the door.
Sentences like these aren’t too bad in themselves. If the odd one sneaks into a good piece of writing it shouldn’t do much harm, but the real danger is overuse.
Jane walked quickly to the door, opened it tentatively, then slammed it angrily as she walked aggressively away.
Okay, it’s an extreme example, but you see what I mean! There are better, clearer ways to get your point across.
Use strong verbs instead
Rather than using wimpy adverbs, go for a strong verb. It says the same thing in less words (always a good thing), while adding far more information. Compare these with the above:
Jane darted to the door.
Jane tiptoed to the door.
Jane stomped to the door.
They tell us who did what, but they also tell us how. They paint a far more vivid picture, and give us a greater insight into Jane’s mindset.
Root out those pesky beasts!
I’m not saying don’t use adverbs at all. You probably noticed one snuck into my first paragraph (i.e. tightly) and I didn’t realise it myself until I re-read my post. Adverbs have their place – but that place is very limited. It’s their overuse that makes a piece of writing suffer.
Try this exercise. Pull out an electronic copy of something you’ve written. Do a search for the letters ‘ly’ – the signature tune of adverbs. How many hits do you get? If you consistently, achingly, lingeringly and longingly overuse adverbs, try smashing them with strong verbs instead!