Hello writer friends, and welcome to another post on how to master description in writing.
I’ve spoken to you about exposition and purple prose so far- these are stylistic approaches to description. This post, however, focuses on the technical side of description.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.
-Stephen King, On Writing
What is an adverb? And why are they so frowned upon in the literary world?
Adverbs are the second type of modifier in English, behind the first modifier: adjectives. Where adjectives modify (describe) nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify other parts of speech like verbs.
The simplest way to recognize adverbs are to look at a sentence and identify the verb.
Ex) He played the tune lyrically.
In this example, the word “played” is the verb. Adverbs modify different parts of speech other than nouns and pronouns, and usually describe the verbs. They typically end in –ly. Therefore, you can see in the example above that “lyrically” is the adverb.
Adverbs don’t usually add anything to the sentence. It tells the reader what you want to show them. To test this, go ahead and take the adverb out and see what it does to your sentence.
Ex) He played the tune.
It gives your audience a little more imaginative liberty, but you’re still leading them in the right direction. This creates immersion.
Either delete the adverbs, or try to make your verb (or whatever the adverb is modifying) stronger. You could change “played” to “strummed” or:
Ex) He strummed the tune.
Ex) He caught the tune in his fingertips.
The other sneaky type of adverbs are the ones that don’t end in –ly and are therefore easier to miss. They are words that modify the sentence as a whole: almost, once, yesterday, today, often, soon, since, sometimes, then, there.
These are just a few, but they are super sneaky and love making their way into your prose. But, just like the little –ly adverbs, just take them out of your sentence and see if they genuinely add something to your work.
Ex) Once, before middle school, we had been friends.
Ex) Before middle school, we had been friends.
This adverb choice can be argued to be stylistic (especially since this sentence is clearly first person POV), but ensure you take a second to evaluate whether or not this adverb actually applies. Do this by examining the sentences around it and being honest whether or not the adverb adds depth or just flair.
The reason why they are so “bad” is because they do not fulfill a purpose. They are like little masked goblins pretending to be fluff and substance, but what they really are is distracting. They just add word counts to your writing and make your sentences weaker. Eliminate them if you can, and also try to make the verb/sentence stronger. Make smarter word choices in other parts of speech in order to avoid adverbs.
Did this help? If you want, you can post a sentence from one of your WIPs below and show how you edited out the adverbs/how you made the sentence stronger with different word choice.
*Thanks to Jessica @ Strung out on Books for pointing out a mistake I made!
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