An adverb is usually a word that handily answers the questions “where?” “when?” or “how?” In some circumstances, adverbs are absolutely essential, but very careful consideration is advised, especially with “how” adverbs. (Many of these “how” adverbs are conveniently marked with an -ly ending, so you can identify them easily!)
Many writers unwittingly fall back on adverbs to blatantly signal the emotion or intent of a sentence. “The reader will understand perfectly what I mean if I judiciously select the right adverb,” the writer thinks happily, and quickly produces the following dialogue:
The last beams of sunlight clung stubbornly to the back porch.
Sasha and Jeff sat somberly on the steps.
“I really can’t live without you,” Sasha said longingly.
“Shh,” Jeff whispered quietly, gently patting her shoulder.
Sasha turned suddenly and kissed him passionately.
“Run away with me!” she said impulsively.
Jeff shook his head gravely. “You know I can’t.”
The sun sank abruptly and completely behind the mountains.
Rather than compellingly drawing the reader into the scene, -ly adverbs are like little figures jumping frantically up and down and urgently waving signs in front of what’s going on. If you were to resolutely clear away the adverbs, you might surprisingly find that the emotion is there already, waiting patiently, and as you watch, it will emerge at first tentatively, then declare itself boldly—
“Stop!” the editor begs. “Please, I can’t take any more!” She pushes her computer violently across the table and cowers miserably under the couch cushions.
Let’s soothe her adverb-fevered mind with a revised dialogue:
The last beams of sunlight clung to the back porch.
Sasha and Jeff sat on the steps and watched the shadows in the garden.
“I can’t live without you,” Sasha said.
“Shh.” Jeff patted her shoulder.
Sasha turned and kissed him.
“Run away with me!” she said.
Jeff pulled away. “You know I can’t.”
The sun disappeared behind the mountains.
If you had to edit this blog post, which adverbs would you take out? Are there any that you think add to what’s being said rather than distract from it?