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I like adverbs, and I think they're a great component of language. I see them as a good means to communicate efficiently.

I also understand that they can be a sloppy shortcut, and that writing that includes them, can perhaps be improved upon.

I'm now looking for them in my manuscript, and using them as a tag for sentences that require another look. I think this is a good use for my existing adverbs (hint: Lots). So I'm using them to spot possible sloppy areas, in my revision process. I'm happy with some of the changes. But maybe 30% of the adverbs seem like they really can't be improved on, and I want to bounce these off other writers.

Example 1:

"They rarely spoke."

I can't think of any verb that replaces 'rarely spoke.' I could instead say something like "They spoke now and then," but the clause 'now and then' is still an adverb. "They spoke" means almost the opposite of "They rarely spoke". !! I think 'rarely' is a good adverb here.

Example 2.

"He answered immediately."

Using the word immediately ... modifies his action to show that he didn't need to think about his answer. "He answered" is a duller version. "He didn't need any time to think about his answer" is possible, and i'm trying that phrasing now, but it just seems so wordy.

Some adverbs, I found ways to reword, and it helped.

Still others I pruned out, and it is OK - but I'm not certain. To me, "The birds chirped noisily" is very different than "the birds chirped." In that case I took out "noisily" because some people, evidently, really hate adverbs.

What do you think about the above? Do my instincts seem right? I am able to prune or re-word about 70% of my adverbs, and the writing is improving overall. But the above examples are tougher to cut or change.

Thanks!

p.s. just the -ly adverbs that modify verbs, here.

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You're overthinking it

Adverbs are, on the surface, not bad. Without them, certain sentences and phrases wouldn't sound right, and we couldn't convey what we wanted to. You're finding this out with that 30%.

However, there is a tendency to overuse adverbs. Adverbs can be an easy way out of description. When this description would be better, the adverb becomes a bad thing. This does not, however, mean all adverbs are bad.

For example, a lot of writers use 'very' a little too often. Often, a writer could replace that 'very' with description. For example:

He was very happy to see her.

REPLACED WITH:

He saw her face, the familiar color of her hair, the curious shape of her eyes. Her familiar perfume wafted towards him and he briefly closed his eyes, remembering its scent. A smile crept onto his face. She was home.

You can see how something like that is far better than simply saying 'very happy'. It's the old 'show, don't tell' rule at it's finest.

How to handle it

Now while it is true that most adverbs can be replaced, that doesn't mean they all should be. What I would do is write like you normally do, and then, when it's time to edit, go back and check for adverbs.

Don't approach it with the mentality of 'all adverbs must go'. Approach it like you would any other line: 'Can this be written better?' If the answer is yes, try to figure out how. Is there perhaps a word or phrase which could be expounded upon, removed, or replaced? Great. Sometimes those words are adverbs. Sometimes they aren't.

In your specific case, with the -ly adverbs, the majority of those can take the place of description.

  • They rarely spoke. Sure, you could eliminate 'rarely' and include a few other lines which together say the same thing. Maybe that would be better. Maybe it wouldn't. It all depends on context.
  • He answered immediately. You could replace immediately, but I wouldn't. In this case, you're trying to convey an immediate response, and additional lines about how fast it was will just slow things down.
  • The birds chirped noisily. This one you could probably fix. But instead of just removing the adverb, focus on the verb. Replace it with a more descriptive verb which includes the noise level. If you were to say the birds squawked, for instance, the reader gets an instant picture of the sound.

I hope this helps, and best of luck in your writing!

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  • Thank you! Yes it helps. I am also wondering about the role of pacing. I suspect these things tie together. – DPT Oct 19 '17 at 20:56
  • Pacing and adverbs don't have much in common that I know of. Try searching for your pacing question, and asking it if you don't find anything. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Oct 19 '17 at 21:00

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