I have some bad news: you’ve been lied to.
In fact, it gets much worse. You’ve been constantly mislead by almost every writing book and instructor you’ve ever met. Your whole life.
Under the guise of promoting simple, clean language they have all but shoved a loaded gun against your head, demanding you erase adverbs and adjectives from your vocabulary.
Their arguments sound good.
“Adverbs and adjectives are the gremlins of writing.”
“They dilute the strength of your sentences.”
“They distance the reader.”
“Kill them! Kill them now!”
OK, I might’ve made that last one up. It’s a bit much. But if you have read any how-to writing books or attended any writing classes or have ever glanced sideways at the Internet, you have likely heard the mantra to get rid of these pesky problem words.
Are they really that bad? The answer, as usual, is yes and no. If overused or used poorly, they can make a writer – and thier writing – sound unprofessional. And nobody wants that.
However, in an effort to drill this lesson into the spongy heads of new writers, teachers have done something of a disservice. The truth is all types of words are useful in certain context.
Adverbs are not the problem. The *misuse* of adverbs is the problem.
Quick grammar review: adjectives describe nouns. The hungry zombies swarmed the camp. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. The zombies swarmed hungrily.
13 Bizarre Reasons You Should Use More Adjectives and Adverbs
1. There is no law against using them
I checked the universal guide to writing. Which was difficult since it was buried with Strunk & White. No ironclad rule to be found. It’s not illegal, folks. Remember that.
2. No English teachers will be harmed
English teachers won’t suffer if you use one or two adverbs or adjectives. Editors won’t jump off the roofs of publishing houses. Probably.
3. Bestselling authors use them
In fact, you might be surprised to find out that bestselling authors who sell hundreds of thousands of books every year use them frequently in their own novels.
The gall of those bestselling authors!
Here are a few examples from published bestselling novels:
“That horrible moment – the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from man with a future and aspirations into this grade-A loser you see in front of you…” Harlan Coben, Stay Close
There it is – that nasty little adjective. And on the first page of a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
“Dawn’s glow shimmered off the flat ocean as a column of Islanders marched along a jungle trail…” Clive Cussler, The Sollomon Curse
Another adjective on the first page. What else is untrue? Do unicorns exist?
4. Sometimes they make sentences better
Yep, far from sinking sentences, adverbs and adjectives can truly enhance them. They can add life, energy, zest to otherwise dull, deadbeat words. Conversely, dull sentences deaden language, destroy attention and deflate
His fingers touched her knee.
His fingers softly touched her knee.
5. Sometimes they can’t be avoided
Strong vivid nouns and verbs are the stuff of a grammarian’s fantasies. On occasion, there are not any workable verbs on hands. Other times, you’ve used the only good verbs in a nearby sentence and duplication is undesirable.
6. They add welcome variety
Instead of avoiding adverbs and adjectives (and cliches) like the plague, reject strings of sentence sameless. They are boring to write much less read. Change things up. Be different by writing differently.
7. Just to be contrarian
Show the world you can’t be tamed. Rebel against the status qou that has kept poor adverbs and adjectives down. A little “wild” is good for the soul. Every so often, breaking the so-called rules of writing reminds you that you are free. Be brave. Be bold. Carpe adverbium.
8. Tap into your original voice
Each writer has a special, unique voice that includes a mix of word choice, sentence structure, style and tone. Don’t deny a part of speech just because someone told you to. Follow most guidelines, consider all advice, then be yourself. Originality balanced with a healthy awareness of tradition is the mother of all bestseller writing.
9. The musicality of the sentence
The mysterious “sound” of writing baffled me for years. Certainly there is art to it. Each word adds or subtracts from how a given sentence falls on the ear. If you read writing out loud, this becomes apparent. Sentences can be coarse or sing-song, each flowing with particular cadence, meter and rythm.
Consider these two sentences:
- The water chugged by the boat.
- The slow, sodden movement of the water cradled the boat.
Both sentences work but the second is more “musical”. The two “s” words use the literary device of alliteration. A combination of simple and musical sentences is often best.
10. Stephen King says so
Ok, so that’s not totally true. He admonishes against them quite strongly in his book On Writing. However, he adds, “I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution”.
What he is really saying – even about attributions like “he said acidly” – is to reserve adverbs for rare occasions. Sunday best not weekday wear.
And when King speaks, I listen.
3 Ways To Use Adverbs and Adjectives Like A Pro
- Use them sparingly
- Use them strategically
- Use them saucily
Remember, adjectives and adverbs are value neutral – neither good nor bad. As science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders says, “Use adverbs sparingly. And don’t use any unnecessary words at all.”
General Guidelines (not rules, every sentence and paragraph is unique)
Sparingly = usually no more than one per sentence and probably one per paragraph. Maybe one per page. Test. Experiment. Tweak. Every story is different.
Strategically = On purpose. Not lacsidaisly or without clear intention. Is there a verb that woks better? Can you rearrange the sentence? How does the sentence sound with or without it? Sometimes an adjective or adverb is simply better.
There are several types of adverbs. The shortlist: adverbs of time, place, manner, degree, condition, and concession. Here’s a quick example of each type for clarity:
- Adverb of time – “Ginger hit the intruder now.” Now is the adverb.
- Adverb of place – “Ginger hit the intruder here.” Here is the adverb.
- Adverb of manner – “Ginger hit the intruder viciously.” Viciously is the adverb.
- Adverb of degree – “Ginger hit the intruder more violently.” More violently is the adverb.
- Adverb of condition – “If the intruder attacks, Ginger will defend herself.” If the intruder attacks is the adverb.
- Adverb of concession – “Although she is thin and weakened, Ginger is a worthy opponent.” Although she is thin and weakened is the adverb.
Saucily = I added this just for fun. But really: use them with attitude. Live it up. Celebrate each opportunity to walk on the literary wild side.
10 More Ways To Apply This Post Immediately
- Don’t swear off adverbs or adjectives.
- Do focus on strong, vivid verbs and nouns. The Spymaster launched herself off the mountain.
- Experiment with using one or more adverbs and adjectives in a sentence.
- Read the sentences aloud to hear how they “sound”.
- Ask, “Does the adverb or adjective make the sentence clearer?”
- Ask, “Does the adverb or adjective add variety and freshness to the paragraph or page?”
- In most cases, avoid littering your sentences, paragraphs and story with them.
- In most cases, avoid long strings of adverbs or adjectives.
- Consider replacing adverbs or adjectives with more powerful and descriptive verbs.
- Remember, there are no rules. Play around with language and see what works for your writing.