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Avoid Adverb Overuse

by Weston Kincade on 12/02/13

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A writing error many authors new to professional fiction writing make is the overuse of adverbs.

What are adverbs?

The Marriam-Webster dictionary defines adverbs as: a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree.


The Problem with Adverbs

You are probably telling yourself, added description is great, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s true. However, there are two very big reasons most professional fiction writers avoid using many adverbs unless the sentence cannot be written another way:

1. Adverbs tend to create a repetitive sound that can annoy readers, especially when they are in close proximity to one another.

2. Adverbs are often very vague descriptions.


Adverb Overuse Example

Consider this sentence:

Incorrect: Myra slowly walked down the carpeted hallway, listening intently to her mother’s snores echoing from the bedroom.

The above example has two uses of adverbs. Can you find them? (Here’s a helpful hint—most adverbs end with an –ly suffix.)

Right, the adverbs are slowly and intently. Slowly modifies how Myra walked, a verb, and intently modifies how she listened, another verb.

While this example is grammatically correct, it has the two problems mentioned above.


1. Repetitive –ly Sound Analysis

The –ly suffix is repeated a couple times in this sentence due to adverbs. If it were a couple of lines from poetry, this rhyming could be used for positive effect. However, in creative fiction the repetitive sound can irritate readers, so it should be avoided.

How should this sentence be rewritten? 

With more accurate verbs. (See the solution below)


2. Adverbs as Vague Descriptors

Revisiting the sentence above, I have also revised the sentence using more accurate verbs and getting rid of the overused adverbs ending in –ly suffixes. Compare them for yourself.

Incorrect: Myra slowly walked down the carpeted hallway, listening intently to her mother’s snores echoing from the bedroom.

Correct: Myra tiptoed down the carpeted hallway, tensing as she listened to her mother’s snores echoing from the bedroom.


The Solution to Adverbs

Each use of an adverb should be seen as an opportunity to improve the description without halting the flow of the story. Paragraphs of description like Dickens used to write in A Tale of Two Cities are inappropriate for modern audiences, so using accurate verbs that will help further the plot while adding more vivid description can go a long way.

In the revised sentence above, the first change I made was to replace slowly walked with tiptoed. This more accurate verb gives the reader a detailed look at how Myra was walking and eliminates the repetitive –ly suffix in the adverb slowly.

The second change I made was to replace listening intently with tensing as she listened. There are other phrases I could have used to describe what she was doing as a reaction to listening, but this one worked for me. It eliminated the redundant adverb intently while still getting across the same information, plus a bit more. The reader can envision her tensing up as she listens. These more accurate verbs will help bring out the details in your story while fine-tuning the sentence structure for the benefit of the reader.


What does this mean for you?

This doesn’t mean you should never use adverbs, but that they should be used only on rare occasions. In most cases, adverbs are either unnecessary and can be taken out without losing any meaning in the sentence or they can be replaced with more accurate verbs, as I demonstrated above.


Editing Tip for Writers

Those writers who have already completed a manuscript may be thinking to themselves, I just finished revising it, and now I need to read over it for a fifth, seventh, or even tenth time. Here’s a little tool of the trade me and many editors have learned that can be very helpful. If you use Microsoft Word, there’s a little tool called Word Search. You’ve probably heard of it and may even have used it. However, if you just want to find adverbs throughout your manuscript so you can read the surrounding sentences and correct them without having to reread the entire book, try this:

In the text box of the word you are going to search for, type ly and add a space afterward. Then hit enter or search. It won’t show the space you added afterward, but the Word Search function will only find instances where ly is used at the end of a word.

The end product will highlight all uses of ly at the end of words and allow you to go from one ly to the next, reading and correcting each adverb use.


I hope this helps. If you have questions or comments about adverbs and their use, feel free to leave a comment.

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