Inklings #7 – Adverbs

Welcome to another Inklings blog!

As usual I’m taking 30yrs of experience and trying to offer some tips and help towards your own writing projects.

Today, we’re going to talk about adverbs. If you’re having high school flashbacks, or staring at the word trying to remember what the heck it means – don’t worry! That’s the first thing we’re going over.

What is an adverb? 

From the Merriam Webster dictionary:

a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content

What does all that mean? An adverb is a word that qualifies or adds to another word, describing it’s function.

For example: I write this blog thoughtfully. You hopefully find it helpful.

Again from Merriam Webster:

An adverb answers the question when?, where?, how?, how much?, how long?, or how often?

Most, though not all, end in -ly, so there’s a bit of a guide to spotting them but as ever with our language, it’s full of exceptions to any rule.

But I’m not here to give you the whole language lecture–the dictionary page linked above will give you more detail as you’re ready for it. Try not to run before you can walk though.

The real reason I’m writing about adverbs is because there’s a piece of writing advice that gets tossed out all too often: don’t use adverbs.

It might come packaged with some other words, about how it makes your writing weaker and they’re not needed, and also adjectives are bad, and so on, but that’s the basic theme. Adverbs are bad, avoid.

Me? I say nonsense. Adverbs are actually, really helpful tools to add depth, tone, and meaning to your work. Whether it’s describing a scene or character, speech or reaction, or anything else, adverbs, used correctly, add meat to your story.

Yes, it’s possible to use too many adverbs. A young writer, who may or may not have been me, might have used far too many once upon a time and years later cringed at them all. But, it’s also silly to use 25 other words to say what you can say in 1 adverb.

If someone is timidly sneaking through a house, or uselessly staring into space–say so!

If someone is speaking angrily, or reacting sadly–say so!

A good general rule is not to use two right next to each other, but I did so above, in a perfectly natural sentence, so don’t etch that into stone, either.

One of the things about adverbs, is that the people telling you not to use them are probably either writing snobs, or repeating what they were told by other writing snobs. You don’t need to take advice from either of those types of people.

What you need is experience, not silly rules. Read lots, write lots, and, yes, even edit lots. As you do, you’ll find that you pick up those rhythms and currents that lead you down the right (or…write? Heh) path, and a lot of how you tune your inner ear to what sounds right, is by getting it wrong.

If you’re busy following a rule to not use adverbs, you’re not tuning that ear to what actually sounds best. You’re doing yourself a disservice, and negatively impacting your writing in the longer term.

So! Use adverbs when it feels right, and let yourself learn from using to many or too few, until you find that sweet spot. Tune your ear, and enjoy the sound that will begin to emerge–your own writer’s voice.


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