Stephen King is famous for having said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Once upon a time, I would have disagreed with him. Now? I’d pat him on the back and apologise for ever doubting him.
I have done a complete turnaround in my attitude to adverbs. A couple of years ago, I wrote a book review of the Harry Potter series and in it I defended J.K. Rowling’s heavy use of adverbs. (It speaks volumes that I did a Google Image search for ‘adverbs bad writing’ and a picture of Rowling came up…) Now I cringe when I read back over that review. Because I get it now.
A well-placed adverb can pack a punch. An overuse of adverbs makes the writing weaker. Why would you say ‘he walked quickly’ when you could say ‘he hurried’ or ‘he dashed’? The strong verb makes more of an impact. In so many cases, the adverb is not actually needed. Like that one.
It’s important to note that adverbs are not restricted to words ending in -ly. Any word that modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb (very, never, almost – there are tons of them) qualifies. The -ly words do stand out the most though which is why they bear the brunt of the attack from adverb-haters.
Adverbs tend to be the sign of an amateur but that is not to say that no professional writer uses them. Diana Gabaldon favours them a lot in her Outlander series. Still, when you write a love story like that, your readers will forgive you for just about anything. (More – much more – on Outlander another time.)
Thanks to my newfound aversion to adverbs, I have spent several weeks ridding my manuscripts of as many of them as I could. The difficulty was that I had relied way too much on them in the past, so tackling my overuse of them across more than 180,000 words was a steep challenge. I had my system – I took half a page of manuscript at a go, counted up the adverbs and edited where possible. That sometimes meant deleting a word, other times adjusting a whole sentence. Every so often I had a half-page of very little work to do, but on too many occasions I came across a section of 300 words with up to twelve adverbs in it. I had some frequent offenders: completely, fully, certainly, clearly, entirely and immediately cropped up everywhere. In the end, I managed to reduce the word count by around 1,600 overall. Yikes!
That having been said, I don’t have a blanket ban on them. Now and then they do strike the right tone and should be left in for that reason. But it’s best to use them sparingly. Like that one.