How to handle the dreaded adverb

Helen Shipman
1 February 2016
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Sarah Farley

One of the questions we see the most in our online classroom is about the dreaded adverb. When it’s appropriate, when to strike it out, and what happens if you use too many of the blighters in your writing. Professional Writing Academy director and fiction writing tutor Helen Shipman puts the record straight.

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Although there are times when adverbs work well and are fine to use, we sometimes find that new writers tend to pack their writing with them because they think this makes their prose more lyrical, or vivid. In fact, too many adverbs usually have the opposite effect.

When it comes to the dreaded adverb, there are two things to think about — precision of language and the old chestnut of ‘showing not telling.’

Precision of language is important because it’s one of the things that produces good writing. Precision means that we should always try to select the most accurate and appropriate word or detail – so that our readers get a clear and powerful image of what we are describing. If we choose the right word, we shouldn’t need an adverb to qualify it or prop it up. For instance, I could write:

As I entered the café, the smell of fresh coffee hit my nostrils powerfully.

But I don’t think the ‘powerfully’ is needed there, is it? ‘Hit’ is doing enough work without the qualification of an adverb. Far from adding vividness, redundant adverbs weaken our writing, and detract from clarity of meaning.

Writers are always urged to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Actually, that’s not always possible — but it’s worth remembering that when we show our readers something it’s likely to have more impact, and be more memorable, than if we just inform them. Adverbs tell the reader what to think — they don’t leave enough room for deduction and engagement on the reader’s part. Take this example:

‘I’ll never forgive you for this,’ said Jo as he drew back his fist and punched me (angrily).

On the other hand, an adverb might be used to surprise us, as here:

‘Stand in line and stop talking immediately,’ said the teacher. ‘You need to move now – girls on the left and boys on the right. You — the boy with the spots — are you deaf?’ The boy with the pimples blushed scarlet and shook his head. ‘Well, if you don’t want detention on your first day, shut up and do as you’re told now,’ she added (bossily/unkindly/menacingly).

We gather from her words that the teacher is speaking unpleasantly, without being told so by the writer. But if the writer added gently at the end, that would tell us something useful about the teacher’s possible change of heart when she realises the boy is embarrassed.

These are obvious examples — but it’s worth checking all adverb use for its function. If you can demonstrate to the reader that someone is anxious, hopeful, frightened, elated or menacing — try to do so without just telling them. And if you need an adverb to support an imprecise verb, try finding a better verb.

But sometimes adverbs work well — it’s a question of knowing when they add something useful, and when they’re a sign of lazy writing. She said authoritatively…

Helen Shipman

Helen has been teaching writing for more than 25 years. She’s written and delivered courses from evening classes for recreational writers to masters degrees in universities.

She has also been devising and teaching online writing courses since the internet was invented — well, almost.

Her graduates are international prizewinners and have published adult, young adult (YA), children’s fiction and non-fiction, and have had screenplays produced. They cite her down-to-earth approach and clear instruction as key to their progress.

A fiction writer herself, Helen was finalist in the Independent on Sunday short story competition in 2005 and her novel A Place of Drowning is with her agent. She is currently working on her second novel The Engraver, a contemporary thriller about a child’s murder.

Getting Started: Beginners' Fiction

Begins: 23 May 2022