On Avoiding Adverbs: I Disagree

wtm adverbsMany contemporary writing teachers will tell you to completely avoid using adverbs.

I disagree.  I think adverbs can be a beautiful, seamless part of prose — if they’re used well and sparingly.

In case you’ve forgotten since grammar school, an adverb is a word which modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb (as in very quickly).  Typically adverbs end in “ly”, like these:

I walked quickly.

He spoke sluggishly.

She laughed heartily.

Using an adverb once in a while is not a crime.  However, I think adverbs have earned a bad rap because too many writers overuse them.

Let me show you two versions of the same paragraph – one using adverbs judiciously, the other going way overboard.  Decide which is more enjoyable to read:

Version #1:

She laughed heartily at my joke.  I felt flattered.  Then she walked slowly out from behind her desk and approached me slyly. 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled, still twirling her eyeglasses playfully in one hand.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

I was sweating profusely, and my socks were clinging damply to my feet like dirty dishtowels.  Would she notice I wasn’t behaving professionally?

 

 Version #2:

Her laugh was hearty.  I felt flattered.  She sauntered out from behind her desk and approached, the portrait of sly confidence. 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled.  In one hand she played with her eyeglasses – twirling, twirling, twirling.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

The sweat poured from my scalp and down the back of my neck.  My socks were two damp dishtowels, clinging to my feet.  Would she notice I wasn’t a pro?

 

In version #1, we have adverbs gone wild: heartily, slowly, slyly, playfully, profusely, damply, professionally.

Now let’s look at version #2.  What changed?  Compare:

Version #1 Version #2
She laughed heartily at my joke.

 

Her laugh was hearty.
The she walked slowly out from behind her desk and approached me slyly. She sauntered out from behind her desk and approached, the portrait of sly confidence.

 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled, still twirling her eyeglasses playfully in one hand.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled.  In one hand she played with her eyeglasses – twirling, twirling, twirling.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

 

I was sweating profusely, and my socks were clinging damply to my feet like dirty dishtowels. The sweat poured from my scalp and down the back of my neck.  My socks were two damp dishtowels, clinging to my feet.

 

Would she notice I wasn’t behaving professionally? Would she notice I wasn’t a pro?

What I want you to see is that there are alternatives to using “ly” adverbs. 

When you get to the editing stage of your memoir, scan your manuscript for excessive adverbs.  Where you see them happening too often, find a different way of saying the same thing.  Use the above table to get you into a creative mindset.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).