Updated: Aug 24
When I was in college, the campus newspaper had a weekly section called the Police Beat. It featured tiny blurbs (no more than three sentences) about recent calls the campus police had responded to. One of my favorite stories went something like this:
"Campus police responded to a report of a fight at [location]. When officers arrived, they found that the individuals in question were playing In the Manner of the Adverb and had been acting out the word 'aggressively.'"
Thankfully, the police apparently realized that it was a misunderstanding, because no one got arrested.
As a refresher, adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs. They often describe how something is done ("said slowly") or act as intensifiers ("bright green"). Many adverbs end in -ly: happily, condescendingly, badly, etc.
If you've never played In the Manner of the Adverb, it works like this: One person is "It" and leaves the room or otherwise moves out of earshot. The rest of the group picks an adverb for the round. Then It returns and tries to guess the adverb by asking the other players to do various actions "in the manner of the adverb." For instance, It might ask one player to order pizza from another player, or It could ask the whole group to pretend to climb a mountain. The results can be hilarious, especially if the requested action doesn't normally fit with the adverb. (Imagine someone trying to order pizza, say, flirtatiously.)
Adverbs in writing are a bit like salt in cooking. Used in the right amounts, both enhance everything around them. But when they're overused, the results are less than palatable.
Don't just take my word for it. I don't go for creepy in my reading, but it's hard to argue with the commercial success of Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he has this to say about adverbs:
"The adverb is not your friend. . . .
"With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it's got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you'll get no argument from me . . . but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn't this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn't firmly an extra word? Isn't it redundant?"
This can be tricky advice to implement. After all, adverbs are an economical way of describing how something is said or done. If a character speaks indignantly, we can infer a lot from that one word about their tone of voice, body language, and facial expression. However, because of the common -ly ending, using a lot of adverbs creates redundancy:
"I'm not going," I said stubbornly, folding my arms tightly. "It's not that scary," Max said cajolingly.
*Shudder.* Using adverbs can also become a crutch. They're a highly tell-y way of conveying information. And remember, we want to show rather than tell. Granted, reducing our use of adverbs can be tricky. To help myself do it, I use these rules of thumb when writing. Try them in your own work:
Use actions rather than adverbs. For example, if someone writes "Of course," she said, rolling her eyes, they don't need to use the adverb sarcastically. It's implied by the eye-rolling.
Use more-precise verbs and adjectives to capture the qualities conveyed by a verb-adverb or adverb-adjective combination. Try He froze instead of He stopped quickly or brilliant instead of very bright/smart.
Sparingly use evocative dialogue tags instead of verb-adverb combos. Gasped can substitute for said breathlessly, and said cajolingly can become cajoled or coaxed. Be careful, because if you overuse this tactic, your writing can start to sound like you raided a thesaurus--i.e., amateurish.
If all else fails and there's no other (elegant) way to convey how something is said or done, use an adverb. This most commonly applies when describing unusual speed (slowly, quickly), volume (loudly, quietly), or quality of voice (hoarsely, laughingly). However, make sure you've tried the other tips first. More often than not, one will work.
Here's to eliminating unnecessary adverbs! Which, by the way, is one of my favorite things to do. Visit this page of my website to find the right level of adverb-shredding for your manuscript.
(Thanks to John Cameron for sharing their work on Unsplash.)