The Problem With Adverbs

Creative Writers are always warned to watch out for too many modifiers – adjectives and adverbs. Truly, we should aim for zero modifiers, but there may be an accession where one may be appropriate. So let’s call it as few as possible and those few are indispensable.

Adverbs are worse than adjectives. In fact, I will often use the Find function on my laptop and enter “ly” to see how many adverbs I let slip in. When I find them I decide whether to keep it, lose it, or rewrite the passage. Rewriting is usually what I end up doing.

When Not To Use Adverbs

The problem with all modifiers is that they are notorious tellers when we Creative Writers should be obnoxious showers. I still use a trick I learned from my first Creative Writing professor. If someone used an adverb in a story, the student had to justify its use.

For example, let’s says someone wrote, “Billy walked lazily down the sidewalk.” He would ask something like, “What does that mean?” or “How do you do that?” The student would then have to describe how a person walks in a manner that could be called lazy. He would then reply, “Now say that.”

Once you describe the actions of a lazy man walking you have ventured into the wonderful world of showing. So when you catch yourself using an adverb, ask yourself what sort of actions would convey that manner, and then use those actions in your prose.

The vilest place a Creative Writer may put an adverb is in a dialogue tagline. It jumps up from the page and screams at the reader THIS AUTHOR IS AN AMATURE! Don’t ever use, “he said knowingly” or “she asked curiously” or any other kind of abysmal modifirific abomination. You can read more about this in my article about the proper use of taglines.

When To Use Adverbs

I had to change clothes before I wrote this part of the article. I had to put on shirt and pants that are all black. That’s because I’m about to shift into Grammar Nazi mode for a bit here. So indulge me for a little bit here or you’ll be strung up with piano wire.

There are times when an adverb is preferable, and that is when an adjective is misused. Just keep in mind this distinction: adjectives tend to modify nominatives (nouns, pronouns) and adverbs tend to modify predicates (verbs, participles).

Sometimes people use adjectives when the modifier has a predicate antecedent. Look at the sentence, “He wanted to see Santa Claus real bad.” Here it should be “badly.” In this sentence “bad” modifies “see.” In other words, the manner in which he wanted to see Santa was badly, not bad.

I may lose my membership to the Author’s Private Club with Salon and Lounge, but this is a sentence where an adverb should be used. At least the adverb is not grammatically incorrect. I would suggest that the Creative Writer must still see if “badly” passes the rigors for adverbial use as discussed earlier. At least it will keep us Grammar Nazis from clucking our tongues at your text when you misuse adjectives.

Two rules all Creative Writers should know are watch the use of modifiers and grammar must be used perfectly (extra credit for those who catch the irony). In the end, it’s your story, and you will write it however you want to. But don’t forget that everyone who reads it will judge it and you. Don’t open yourself up to unnecessary scowls and scrutiny just because you really thought all those messy modifiers actually worked. It’s best to keep the prose as clean as possible with nothing on the page that is not indispensable.

If you know some Authors who struggle with adverbs and all attending shenanigans, do them a favor and Share this article with them. And be sure to leave your Comments in the section below. I will read them earnestly.


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