The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King
I recently had this discussion in a writers group I attend once a month. I critiqued an interesting piece of work but found it littered with adverbs. The vast majority of them ending in -ly, as they so often do.
Ly adverbs, of course, are among the most worthless ones. There was some resistance in the group to the idea that the use of ly words constituted lazy writing, but after some thought, I think it may have dawned on them that I was right. At least, I'd like to think so.
So what's my problem with adverbs that end in -ly? Why are they so wrong? I used to use them myself-often, until my editor tore them from my manuscript, kicking and screaming. Consider this example.
"Meet me behind the house in five minutes," John whispered quietly."
OK, well how the hell else does someone whisper, if not quietly? See what I mean? Here's another.
"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" she said seductively.
Now, this misquote from Mae West tells you how she said the words when it should be showing you how she said it. like-
"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" she said, batting her eyelashes.
Now with the description of the action, the reader visualizes the seductive intent of her words and remains engaged with the story.
The point is, visual cues show readers what’s happening; adverbs tell them. And we want to show what’s happening whenever possible to make the writing more vivid. Don't we?
Most adverbs either tell us what we already know or use too many words to communicate an image or idea. Let’s look at an adverb that modifies an adjective
It’s a very cool evening.
Once we write that an evening is cool, does it being very cool change the perception of the evening in the reader’s mind? No. All it does is intensify the word that follows it and it does a bad job of it. Often, the word very and the word it modifies can both be replaced with one word that is more precise:
It’s a cold evening.
In this sentence, we don’t need the word very or the word cool. The word cold does the job. It’s clearer and more concise, which is the mark of strong writing.
When I first saw all the crossed-out ly words in my manuscript, I thought my editor was just trying to impose her own writing style on my beautiful work of art. However, removing them forced me to find other ways to say the same things and I soon found my writing had much more depth to it. I wouldn't admit it to her, but she made my manuscript better. Now, I’m always on the lookout for useless words in my writing. I find that seeking out adverbs is a good way to clean up my prose.
Don't just take my word for it.
“Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer," said Mark Twain seriously.