Writing Wednesday: Should you cut all your adverbs?

Many people I’ve met through writing groups (both online and in person) talk about how “evil” adverbs are and how we should cut them from our writing. Stephen King talks about this in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. While I enjoyed his book and I respect my fellow writers, sometimes we really need adverbs. (See what I did there? I used the adverb really.)

The question is, when to cut the adverb and when to keep it?

Kid with pencilFirst of all, we should know what an adverb is. An adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb. It can answer one of several questions:

  • How?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • To what extent?

Mostly people think of adverbs as being -ly words. While this is often true, not all adverbs end in -ly. For example, in the previous sentence the word often is an adverb that answers the question when.

Also, not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. For example, lovely ends in -ly, but it’s an adjective because it answers the question what kind and would modify a noun. I once saw  an eager critiquer highlight every -ly word an author had used and suggest she cut them all. Unfortunately, quite a few of those -ly words weren’t adverbs at all.

So when should you cut an adverb and when should you keep it? Keep the adverb only if it adds meaning. Let’s say you have the following sentence:

“Come with me,” she whispered softly.

The adverb softly adds no new meaning to the sentence. If she’s whispering, clearly she’s talking softly. Likewise, don’t say she said softly. Use the verb whispered instead. Never use two words where one would suffice.

Some adverbs can be cut 99% of the time. These include very, really, and just. I use a “search and destroy” method to root these adverbs out of my manuscripts. Most of the time, they’re filler.

On the other hand, don’t cut every single adverb you see. Sometimes you need them. For example, sometimes is an adverb, and without it, my last sentence would lose meaning. Bottom line? If it adds meaning to the sentence, keep it. If not, cut it!

And if you still don’t believe me, remember that the word not is an adverb. Imagine if we cut all the not’s out of our sentences!

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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