Post: Adverbs—should writers use them?


If you were the type of student who enjoyed English classes in elementary school, you may recall learning about adverbs. These words often end in “ly” (but not always, so be careful!), and their purpose is to modify adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. They do this by expressing manner, degree, place, time or frequency. In grade school, your teacher likely simplified that language by saying adverbs tell how, when, where,  how much or how often. 

After spending weeks learning about adverbs, taking quizzes and practicing usage, many students are surprised when they grow up and decide to become writers and are told to avoid using adverbs. Editors tell writers to aim for brevity and to be concise. Use as few words as possible to say what you want to say. Hmm…this doesn’t leave (much) room for adverbs then, does it? 

Like cosmetics and accessories, less is more when it comes to adverbs

Writers should avoid verbosity. This is the equivalent of loquaciousness in speech. In laymen’s terms, it means using more words than necessary. Some readers are drawn toward verboseness. Take Charles Dickens, for example. Readers typically have a “love or hate” relationship with his writing. Some say he waxes on for what feels like eternity. Others like his flair for description

However, if you were to take classes to improve your fiction-writing skills, your instructor would no doubt advise you to avoid adverbs. Think of it as if your paper is a canvas or a face or body. The less paint, cosmetics or accessories, the better. Writing is the same. Less is more. 

Revision examples to help writers learn to avoid using adverbs

You could write that a woman hurriedly walked across the street. If you want readers to know this without using the adverb “hurriedly,” you could just say, “The woman dashed across the street.” Additional examples: 

  1. The water slowly flowed from the faucet, barely coming out at all.
  2. The water trickled from the faucet.
  1. The plane flew higher and higher. 
  2. The plane continued its ascent.
  1. The children excitedly shouted joyfully upon hearing the good news. 
  2. The children cheered when they heard the news. 

Experienced writers understand their ability to evoke emotions or reactions in readers without overstating their ideas. Adverbs are not inherently bad. They can improve narrative flow and add context. On the flipside, they can also make a story feel cluttered. Remember—less is more.