Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Strengthing Your Writing... By Using Adverbs in Moderation

My second blog post included a list of tips for strengthening your writing. The following week, I wrote about the fist topic in that list: dialogue. Then I took rather long break. But now I'm back, and I intend to write every week. This week I'll discuss using (or not using) adverbs.

Adverb Use

Adverbs are words that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Consider the following sentence:

     Adverbs are often lovely words, and usually end in -ly.

Did you spot the two adverbs? If you guessed lovely and  usually--nice try, but you'd be wrong. Usually is an adverb, but lovely is an adjective (it modifies a noun). The other adverb is often--it modifies the adjective lovely.

Adverbs often tell how or when something is done:
  • He sang beautifully.
  • She walked haphazardly through the town.
  • He struggled daily with his addiction.
  • I immediately answered the phone.

Adverb Abuse

Adverbs can be very useful. They can also lead to lazy writing. Instead of spending the time to come up with verbs that give the exact meaning you want to convey, it's tempting to simply modify a more common verb.

For example, you can say, "He walked quickly into the room," and make your general point. But consider some verb choices that can convey the exact meaning you want. Here are some possibilities:
  • He hurried into the room.
  • He scurried into the room.
  • He rushed into the room.
  • He raced into the room.
  • He darted into the room.
  • He scampered into the room.
In each example above, the nuance could be slightly different depending on what's happening in the story, or even depending on your character's personality. A hero-type would be more likely to race or rush. A mousey-type might prefer to scamper or scurry. But a very busy person might also scamper or scurry, as would someone who's always fussing about.

Avoid Overuse

If you overuse adverbs your writing can become tiring. Consider the following (thankfully) short passage:

"He walked hurriedly into the dining hall, looking about anxiously for a familiar face, nervously hoping he'd eventually see someone he knew. He stopped suddenly, and slowly began to grin. There, alone at the far table, twisting uneasily in her chair, sat Lisa Hornswallow. He walked decisively in her direction. She knew even less people here than he did. She'd gladly agree to let him join her."

Okay, that's a little bit overdone. But even if you don't do it that heavy-handed it can get annoying after just a few pages. Even if you use colorful adverbs.

By choosing stronger verbs you can get rid of most of the adverbs. Better verb choice can also allow you to condense some of the sentences. Also, try thinking of a different way to phrase or arrange things. Here's one way to get the same feelings across with less words and a lot less adverbs:

"He rushed into the dining hall and glanced about, eyes straining to spot a familiar face. There. A grin crept across his face. Alone at the far table, Lisa Hornswallow fidgeted in her seat. He strode in her direction. She knew even less people here than he did; of course she'd be glad to see him."

Think of adverbs as salt. A little can do a lot to improve the flavor of your writing, but if you add too much--yuk!

What about you? Do you tend to use lot of adverbs in your writing. Do you think you could strengthen your writing with a strong verb or a turn of a phrase?

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