Antagonistic Adverbs

What is an adverb? It’s a word that contextualises the word it’s attached to such as, ‘they said angrily’. By using ‘angrily’ we how they are speaking. When we’re discussing adverbs in our fiction writing we generally mean a word with ‘ly’ on the end, though not all adverbs have ‘ly’ on the end.

For example a person can ‘work late’ and ‘late’ is an adverb because it contextualises ‘work’. ‘They worked’ means one thing but ‘they worked late’ means something else. Words such as ‘then’ are also adverbs as it contextualises when, or ‘there’ because it contextualises where. They can link sentences ‘therefore’, comment on sentences and be sentences. At this point you might see that adverbs extend far beyond those little old ‘ly’ words that people dislike, in fact some sentences couldn’t function without an adverb. If you put something somewhere then we need to know where you put it and in doing so you’ll likely use a place adverbial such as ‘outside’ or ‘there’.  It’s looking increasingly difficult not to use an adverb.

So why are those old ‘ly’ adverbs so argued against? Because a lot of the time they are unnecessary. For example, if someone is having an argument and the reader knows they’re having an argument do we need to tell the reader that the person is speaking angrily? Probably not as the context implies how the dialogue is spoken. ‘Angrily’ can also be quite vague because one person’s angrily might be bellowing at the top of their lungs and another person’s angrily might be a very low threatening voice.

Another disadvantage of the ‘ly’ adverb is that they tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves in a herd. Once again we’re returning to the idea of repetition creating emphasis. Except in this case it’s not a phrase that’s being repeated it’s that ‘ly’ sound. If we’re not careful we could end up with several ‘ly’ words in one paragraph. ‘ly’, ‘ly’, ‘ly’ breaking up our lovely rhythm and stealing the attention of the reader.

However, as with ‘they looked’ it doesn’t mean we have to cut out adverbs altogether. Sometimes trying to avoid an adverb leads to the risk of odd phrasing or more words than we need. So while too many adverbs draw attention to themselves a complete absence can to the same. If we bring ‘then’ and ‘there’ back into the equation what would we use instead? We might have to go round the houses a bit to avoid the simplicity of ‘then’ or ‘there’.

This might seem like confusing advice but we need to approach adverbs as we would any other word and ask ourselves, ‘Is this the right word?’ This is the essence of writing, putting the right words in the right order. What this order is depends on your writing style, some people like a more verbose style while others like it cut down to a minimum and a multitude of other styles in between. There’s no wrong or right style of writing. If anyone tries to tell you there is then they are wrong because writing is subjective.

I know when I get down to serious editing I often cut the majority of my adverbs out but I’m not going to tell you that you have to do the same because your style is no doubt different from mine. When we approach adverbs when we’re editing we shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Well, so-an-so says we shouldn’t have adverbs’. We should be thinking about whether we have the right word and the right phrasing to convey our meaning.

If the phrase we thinks works the best happens to have an adverb, ‘ly’ or otherwise, it doesn’t mean it’s bad writing.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on the basics of writing see Finding Your Toolbox.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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