I’ve been musing about adverbs lately, considering their place in the fictional universe, the pros and cons of their use, and what role they play in building a world and maintaining pacing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, like exclamation marks, adverbs are best used sparingly, if at all.
First, what’s an adverb? An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies pretty much anything except nouns, that is: verbs, clauses, adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases. For example, as very in very nice (modifying an adjective), much in much more impressive (modifying an adjective), and tomorrow in She’ll write to you tomorrow (modifying a verb). Adverbs are very useful in terms of setting time, place, and manner, and they’re often most recognisable in their -ly form (loosely, slowly, gently, carefully – these are all adverbs).
Let’s leave aside time and place adverbs (now, tomorrow, yesterday, at home, etc) which have a strong use in fiction that’s not really covered by any other class of words, and focus on the adverbs that modify adjectives and verbs in particular.
I touched on adverbs modifying adjectives a little when I talked about the problems with hyperbole. Unless you really need the emphasis, more impressive means about the same as much more impressive, and you could alter this by looking for new adjectives: superior, superlative, extraordinary, etc.
But I mostly want to talk about adverbs modifying verbs today.
The thing about adverbs is that the solution to their use is in their very name: ad-verb, that is add to a verb, modify a verb. But with the depth, variety, and diversity of verbs available to writers and editors (and, indeed, any user of the English language), the use of an adverb can be curtailed simply by finding and using the right verb.
He walked slowly and heavily down the hallway to the kitchen where she waited for him.
He plodded down the hallway to the kitchen where she waited for him.
He trudged down the hallway to the kitchen where she waited for him.
He lumbered down the hallway to the kitchen where she waited for him.
Any of the three alternate sentences are stronger, because they’re more precise and more elegant, pinpointing the exact movement of the character.
She erotically removed her pants off one hip, revealing a small, butterfly tattoo.
She peeled her pants off one hip, revealing a small butterfly tattoo.
She teased her pants off one hip, revealing a small butterfly tattoo.
She divested one hip of its clothing, revealing a small butterfly tattoo.
Choosing the right verb doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding adverbs completely. Sometimes it means that you can choose the right verb/adverb combination to really drive your point home.
She erotically slid her pants off one hip, revealing a small, butterfly tattoo.
She gradually bared one hip, playing peek-a-boo with a small, butterfly tattoo.
She denuded one hip languidly, revealing a small, butterfly tattoo.
Precision in writing will immediately (adverb!) affect areas that with which many authors struggle: pacing, wordiness, lack of sophistication. Making the best verb choice will tighten your story, boost pacing, and add elegance to your prose – easily, and with precision.
Here are some great verb lists to help you get started!