For the life of me, I can’t figure out why adverbs have gotten such a bad rap in recent years. Maybe it’s because they’re so versatile. When I was in school I was taught that an adverb was a word used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb and expresses time, degree, manner, cause, etc. If an adjective tells us what kind, an adverb can add how much. Plus, they can be put in various places within a sentence. In English they often end with –ly. Sounds good so far, right? So, naturally, I began including them in my writing.
I first was exposed to the current stylistic trend of avoiding adverbs when my first editor mentioned that I had used too many of them.
“Really?” I asked.
“Positively,” she said. “Take them out.”
And so, valuing her expert and usually correct opinion, I did as she instructed. How did I do it? Obediently, that’s how. When did I do it? Immediately, of course. I have to admit, I absolutely liked the results.
In all seriousness, avoiding over-modification is one of the things that current editors tend to stress, and including a lot of adverbs can make your prose a bit clumsy. Streamlining is a good thing. Let’s take a look at an example.
She wound the clock tightly and set it back on the shelf quickly.
Makes you cringe, doesn’t it? Sounds like an adverbial love fest. Let’s try some streamlining.
She wound the clock and set it back on the shelf.
Is it important that the reader knows to what degree she wound it or with what speed she set it down? Possibly, but if a word is not germane to the story, it’s better to leave it out. Every word should advance the plot. That said, I think a case can be made for including an adverb now and then.
I still remember a line from one of James Joyce’s stories in Dubliners in which some men are sitting around a campfire and one spat so copiously that he almost extinguished the flames. That’s a lot of spit he got out of one word --- copiously. I don’t remember the title of the story, but I remember the image because of the adverb. Let me reach back and pick out a phrase from another one of the masters, Dashiell Hammett. In one of his Continental Op stories he wrote the following line:
I hit him with the door repeatedly.
Let’s take a look at that one. Could he have merely said, I hit him with the door? Could he have described the action using a plethora of blood and gore-ridden prose? Obviously he could have, but what did he gain by using the single adverb? Read the sentence again and you’ll see that the word repeatedly gives a special emphasis and connotes the action much more effectively . . . He hit him not just once, not just twice, but repeatedly. You can almost see it happening by virtue of just that one word. The sentence is clearly a work of art.
That’s how to use an adverb effectively.
Adverbs are like the salt a cook puts into the soup. Too much and he ruins the taste, too little and there’s not enough. But sprinkle in a bit, here and there, and wa-la, you’ll have them calling for more crusts of bread so they can sop up the rest of the juice.
And how will they sop it up?
Why, eagerly, of course.