This post, by Janice Hardy, originally appeared on her The Other Side of the Story blog on 3/24/09.
Writers the world over just shuddered when I said that. The experts tell us to never use adverbs. Adverbs are bad, adverbs are evil, adverbs will sneak into your room late at night and strangle you in your bed.
Well, not really.
Poor use of adverbs is bad, but adverbs are a perfectly good tool in any writer’s toolbox. Many have equated them to a heavy spice, like cayenne pepper. A dash spices things up, but too much makes the dish inedible. Some writers, especially those just starting out, think they must kill all adverbs and never ever use them or their work will be rejected.
Again, not really.
Agents aren’t counting your adverbs and if you go over a secret number they reject you. What they are doing, is reading your story to see if it makes them want to keep reading it. If they find reasons not to, they’ll stop. One of those reasons is bad writing, and bad adverb usage is high on the list of what’s considered bad writing.
Adverbs are acceptable if used well. The trick is to know when you’re being lazy and when you’re using the right word to say what you mean.
Adverbs are often misused in dialog. We’ve all seen (and probably written):
"I hate you," she said angrily.
In this instance, there are plenty of great ways a writer can dramatize anger. The she in question can bang her fist on a table, spit in his face, pull out a Sig Sauer nine mil and blow his brains out. All of those would be more exciting than angrily, which can mean something different to everyone who reads it. By using an ambiguous adverb, not only are you falling into lazy writing, you’re missing a great opportunity for characterization. The gal who would bang her fist on a table is not the same gal who’d break out that Sig.
Now, look at a line like:
"I hate you," she said softly.
Many people would swap out softly for whisper in this instance, but whisper isn’t the same as speaking softly. I can speak softly and not whisper. Softly is an adverb that conveys something specific depending on the context in which it’s used. What you pair with this adverb will make or break it.