A short essay about the frequent overuse of adverbs and how to improve your writing.
| A few evenings ago, at the restaurant Chez Bébé, I was fortunate enough to be in the company of a beautiful young woman. I'd been recalling my latest escapades at the Cape when she stopped me midsentence.
"Ugh," she grunted in a most unlady-like manner.
"What?" I asked, bemused.
"You've been soiling your sentences with too many adverbs!" she cried. Then, without another word, she stood and left, abandoning me to poke at the moist roast duck we'd been sharing.
I sat there and sighed as the click-clack of her high-heels faded across the room, secluded and cradling a snifter of fine brandy. Too many adverbs?
-Yes indeed! And I'm here to help make sure this sort of embarrassing thing never happens to you!
What is an adverb? An adverb is a part of speech that describes "when," "where," and "how" by modifying verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
The overuse of adverbs is a very common problem among writers. It can sneak up on you like a shadow and seduce you like a succubus (or incubus). In fact, I've heard tell that "adverb dependence" might just be voted in as the eighth deadly sin! Or maybe I'm just making that up...
Either way, I'm here not only to explain why adverb overuse is a bad habit, but how you might break it.
Why is adverb overuse a bad habit?
-It makes the writer seem lazy.
-In many cases, adverbs are superfluous words that devalue a piece's wordcount.
-Adverbs can become redundant.
Think of adverbs as you would a potent spice; a little bit can add a lot, but a lot can ruin a meal! Sometimes, the rest of the ingredients have so much flavor on their own that a spice would sully the final product.
Since I'm going to be talking about adverbs, it's only logical that I'll be talking a lot about verbs (and to a lesser extent, adjectives) as well. As you come to rely less on adverbs, your reliance on verbs and their individual connotations will grow – and that's good. The use of proper verbs makes a writer sound like he/she knows what he/she's doing. I also will show you (as best I can) the thought process I use when it comes time for me to pick out verbs.
Let me show you an adverb-riddled sentence that a lazy writer might write (made up on the spot):
"She fell to the bed hard and went to sleep quickly."
Ew! With sentences like that, it's no wonder that woman walked out on me! First of all, the clause, "she fell to the bed hard," sounds so out of tune that I wish I could deny it had ever come from my head. Secondly, "quickly" is an overused punk of a word that gets much more attention than it deserves. (It is also, in this case, superfluous.)
For reference, the two clauses are:
1. "She fell to the bed hard"
2. "and went to sleep quickly"
So, how can we fix this? It's actually quite easy! Let's fix the first clause before worrying about the second one.
What is she doing?
What else falls hard?
-Big things (the bigger they are, the harder they fall).
Okay, what's big?
-A polar bear?
That's good. How do we describe houses when they fall?
-they "collapse," "crumple," "crumble," and maybe even "tumble."
(There are many more words that we could use, but let's keep it simple, okay?)
There you have it! Normally, I'd just think, "what verb means 'to fall hard'?" But if I get stuck, I run through that bit that I did above.
The words "crumple," "crumble," and "tumble" all feel too reactionary to me.
-E.g., if someone hits you on the head, you'll "crumple/crumble" to the floor; if someone throws you across the room, you'll "tumble" to the floor. While any of these words is a better choice than "fall hard," "collapse" is the best option.
So now we have, "She collapsed on the bed and fell asleep quickly."
I'm going to change "and fell asleep quickly" to "and sleep took her quickly."
From there, I'm going to take a similar approach to what I did above:
What is she doing?
-sleep is taking her...quickly.
No... What is she doing?
-She's letting sleep take her...quickly?
Yes! So she's sort of "giving in," isn't she?
-Yeah, you might even say that she's "surrendering."
In the end, we get: "She collapsed on the bed and surrendered to sleep."
Let's talk more about verbs and connotations. Verb connotations are almost like implicit adverbs (and adjectives, in some cases). Cool, right? To demonstrate this, I'm going to write the same sentence a few different times; the only difference from one instance to another will be a single verb.
"Waves lapped against the shore."
"Waves broke against the shore."
"Waves crashed against the shore."
"Waves exploded against the shore."
Which waves were the largest? How do you know? I didn't describe the waves at all, nor did I describe their force against the shore. The different verbs implied everything you needed to know about the waves. It sure beats saying "the waves hit softly against the shore," or "the waves hit really, really hard against the shore," doesn't it? This implied description is called "connotation." At least, that's the best way I can describe it. Be mindful of connotation when picking your words!
Now, don't get me wrong; we all need adverbs sometimes! (In fact, I've used a lot of them to write this essay!) Words like "now," "soon," "today," "tomorrow," "over," "under," "here," "there," and "everywhere" are all adverbs. (Some are also prepositions.)
"We will talk later today." (pronoun, verb, verb, adverb, adverb)
"Let's meet there tomorrow." (verb'pronoun, verb, adverb, adverb)
I'm not picking on those adverbs. As far as I know, there are no verbs that mean "talk later today," or "meet there tomorrow."
We need the adverbs that denote "when" or "where"; much of the time, we don't need the ones that describe "how."
But, even the "how" adverbs are fine to use sometimes (if they are *ultimately necessary):
"He slowly reached for the gun."
We, as humans, tend to like to do things in the easiest possible manner. Adverbs are oftentimes easier than finding the "right verb." Don't allow them to dominate your work like so many writers do. Try to find the "right verb," and your work will stand out and be better for it.
That's my two cents,