How to handle the dreaded adverb

One of the questions we see the most in our classrooms is about the dreaded adverb. When it’s appropriate, when to strike it out, and what happens if you use too many in your writing. PWA director and Beginner’s Fiction tutor Helen Shipman sets the record straight.

Helen Shipman
Helen Shipman

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.

– Helen Shipman

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…

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Meet your Course Director

Helen Shipman

Helen Shipman

Helen has been teaching people to write for 30 years.

She has devised and delivered writing courses from adult classes for recreational writers to undergraduate and masters degrees. She has also created and taught online writing courses since the internet was invented – almost.

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

Helen is a fiction writer herself and was a finalist in the Independent on Sunday short story competition. She recently retired from university teaching to concentrate on finishing a novel – a contemporary thriller about a child’s murder – and to work with groups of writers in the wider community.

More about Helen Shipman

Fiction Foundations

The perfect entry point for beginner writers.

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