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“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” —Stephen King

Adverbs tell us when, where, why, how, how much and how often. Without adverbs, we wouldn’t have massively multi-player online role-playing games, no one would have “boldly go[ne] where no one has gone before” and we would have reveled in stories “From the past, in a distant galaxy” instead of in stories from “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Adverbs can add context, imagery and clarity to sentences that other words can’t.

But as great as adverbs can be, they can easily be overused.

Don’t waste time

Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of creative writing — and the only rule that should never be broken, even in blog posts — is this: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Misused and overused adverbs can slow the pace of reading, sucking up more of your readers’ time than necessary. They can also lead to redundancies and hamper your readers’ emotional and intellectual connection to what you write.

And if you routinely waste your readers’ time with flat prose, they won’t keep coming back.

As you edit your writing, target the adverbs. Remember that not all adverbs end in -ly (often, seldom, very), and not all words that end in -ly­ are adverbs (friendly, ugly, Italy). But if you aren’t keen on your grammatical terms, homing in on those -ly words is a good place to start.

Editing tip: When you find an adverb, make sure it’s necessary. If it isn’t, kill it.

Adverb abuse and overuse usually involves squeezing in an adverb to prop up a weak verb. As you’re hunting down adverbs, look at what verbs they’re linked to. Can you replace those two (or more) words with a single, stronger, more interesting verb?

To illustrate, take a look at the following example:

I walked aimlessly through the market, absorbing the atmosphere. Vendors yelled loudly in multiple languages, aggressively trying to sell me incense, silver, scarves, food. Children ran gaily about, unsupervised, bumping haphazardly into market sellers and buyers alike. I wondered if they were really pickpockets surreptitiously lifting the day’s income from the mass of unsuspecting tourists.

This paragraph is perfectly grammatical, and you can get a decent picture of the market from it. But by focusing on the adverbs and their verb partners, you can make it more concise and telling:

I meandered through the market, absorbing the atmosphere. Vendors squawked in multiple languages, hawking incense, silver, scarves, food. Children scurried through the crowd, floundering into market sellers and buyers alike. I wondered if they were pickpockets leeching the day’s income from the mass of unsuspecting tourists.

The art of the edit

I replaced each adverb-verb pair with a single verb that means the same thing:

  • meandered instead of walked aimlessly
  • squawked instead of yelled loudly
  • hawking instead of aggressively trying to sell
  • scurried instead of ran gaily
  • floundering instead of bumping haphazardly
  • leeching instead of surreptitiously lifting

No two editors would recast this example exactly the same. This is the art of copy editing: Choosing from many possibilities to create just the image, tone or mood that a piece needs. In this case, I chose verbs that called to mind images of animals, which, I hope, helps readers think of the market as a jungle.

You could go another way, though, using screamed, shouted, shrieked, screeched or any number of synonyms in place of squawked, each one creating a discrete aural image for the reader. Yelled loudly, on the other hand, only lets us know that the volume of the vendors’ voices goes up to 11.

Notice that I also removed the word really from the last sentence. Really and its co-conspirator very often can be removed from the text without affecting its meaning. Sometimes it might take a little word substitution, though: really gross can become disgusting, repulsive, revolting; very large can become gigantic, huge, titanic.

The edited version of the example is nine words shorter and contains no adverbs. Not one. Don’t take this to mean that all adverbs are evil, though. A well-placed adverb can make a sentence sing, but too many of them will make it go out of tune.

So respect your readers’ time and effort and keep an eye on your adverbs.

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