Adverbs: Avoiding adverb overuse

Adverbs are quite a varied class of words, which work in several different ways in sentences. Think of examples like obviously, afterwards, extremelygently. These show that adverbs can express many different kinds of meaning.

This makes adverbs a useful word class. However, many experienced writers advise us to avoid overusing adverbs, and instead find other ways of describing actions and events.

Warnings about adverb overuse usually concern manner adverbs. This type of adverb modifies a verb and describes how (or in what ‘manner’) something happens. In this way it tells us more about the action or process described by the verb. Here are some examples of manner adverbs:

  • Ben Retallick shook his head vigorously. [W2F-007 #47]
  • They are looking at each other lovingly, both laughing. [W2F-014 #8]
  • She was in a good mood now, smiling broadly as she clutched her glass of wine. [W2F-013 #142]

A common writing problem is to rely too heavily on manner adverbs to describe the action in a story. The following passage is an example. Pause here for a moment and see if you can find all the manner adverbs:

  • The door opened suddenly and Josh came quickly into the room. He saw Fiona chatting flirtatiously with Adam, and went over to her angrily. ‘What are you doing here?’ he yelled aggressively.

Here is the same passage with the manner adverbs marked:

  • The door opened suddenly and Josh came quickly into the room. He saw Fiona chatting flirtatiously with Adam, and went over to her angrily. ‘What are you doing here?’ he yelled aggressively.

You probably noticed that all these adverbs ending in -ly sound clumsy when they occur close together. They seem to clog up the writing and stop it from flowing. They also fail to provide a vivid description of the action.

For example, this passage tells us that Josh came quickly into the room, combining an adverb with the verb came, which conveys a rather bland meaning.

Instead, a stronger verb could be used on its own to create a more vivid image of Josh’s action: for instance, we could write that he strode or stalked or stomped into the room.

Similarly, instead of The door opened suddenly we could have The door burst open. Then we might have:

  • The door burst open and Josh strode into the room.

The passage also tells us that Fiona was chatting flirtatiously, but this does not give us a clear image. It would be better to describe what she was actually doing:

  • Was she leaning in close to Adam, or touching his arm, or flicking her hair?

Similar points apply to the use of angrily and aggressively.

Experienced writers advise us to ‘show rather than tell’ the reader what is happening.

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