[I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because most bots are boring, but bots that argue with you about grammar are disturbingly sexy.]
At some point in just about every writing workshop or conference, someone reminds someone else that adverbs (those notorious “-ly” words) are the devil’s own tools and should be hacked mercilessly from every manuscript. (You noticed I used an adverb there, right?)
Question: Do editors really hate adverbs?
Short answer: Pretty much, yeah.
Long answer: When it comes to adverbs being verboten, those immortal words of Captain Barbarosa leap to mind: “They’re not really rules. They’re more like guidelines.”
So here’s the thing about adverbs: They aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. It’s just that over-dependence on them can begin to look lazy. Or redundant. Or sloppy. Or inaccurate. Or clichéd. Or… fill in the blank with your own adjective. Adverbs are handy because they can modify a verb. That’s okay, except that it might let you get away with a less-than-stellar verb. Not okay.
Another reason to avoid adverbs is that if you use a word like “suspiciously,” you missed an opportunity to describe the body language that would have shown us the character’s “suspiciousness,” like narrowed eyes or crossed arms. Body language is far more interesting, unique, and personal than just an adverb that feeds us the generic emotion. I’d rather see how that character exudes suspicion, rather than having the author hand me the shortcut word “suspiciously.” That’s not visual at all, and I want to SEE that character!
If body language doesn’t get the job done, then interaction with another character might. By describing one character’s reaction to another, you can give us a better picture of both of their emotional states, which is far more intriguing than some over-used generic adverb.
The occasional adverb is fine – great even – if it truly is the best way to illuminate a sentence. But mix it up by using unexpected but spot-on verbs, participles, body language, dialogue, and interaction.
So, to continue our example, you could write:
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said suspiciously.
However, we've already established that the adverb “suspiciously” is generic, with a broad spectrum of how that might look on a person. Because we want to see how Sarah actually looks, acts, or feels in this particular situation, we could give her a bit of body language:
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said through tight lips.That’s better, but can we do more with her body language to show what’s really going on here?
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said, slipping her hand to the hilt of her dagger.Now let’s try showing some body language as well as some interaction with another character:
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
Sweat prickled the back of Gerald’s neck as he watched Sarah’s hand shift to the hilt of her dagger. “Yeah, Sarah, I can tell.”
Adverbs save a lot of time and words because they’re shortcuts. But as shortcuts, they often simplify everything too much, leaving us a little bored. The scenic route can be a lot more captivating. (Just ask Gerald.)
Adverbs can also be redundant. If we’d added “she said suspiciously” in the last example, it would have been a waste of effort, because the action in the scene shows us how Sarah feels. We don’t need to beat our readers over the head with a generic adverb just in case they missed the whole sweat-inducing dagger part – that’s just insulting. And a waste of word count.
On the other hand, sometimes the perfect adverb can tighten a sentence eloquently. (See what I did there? I used an adjective AND an adverb because economy of language was appropriate in that sentence. Whee!!)
Editors don’t hate ALL adverbs. They’re just tired of the lazy writing that happens when it’s riddled with ordinary adverbs instead of evocative description and taut emotion.
Adverbs, adjectives, participles, and other descriptors all carry the same caution: it’s not quite a crime punishable by death to use them, but be certain you apply them like a strong spice – wisely and sparingly – and make sure there isn’t a more riveting way to write life into your scene.