Written by Mr. Hatz, Retired Teacher and Coach
In 22 years of teaching English at Chula Vista High School, inarguably the question asked most frequently by students went something like this: “How can I improve my writing?” or “What can I do to become a better writer?”
Assuming these students had a decent understanding of writing conventions – complete sentences, spelling, grade-level vocabulary, etc. – my response was short and simple: “Use rhetorically accurate verbs (always), and use adverbs sparingly.
I will first focus on my second piece of advice: ditch the adverbs. They are overused, often redundant and can cause unnecessary clutter.
But you do not have to take my word for it. Instead, here is what two highly regarded authors have to say about adverbs:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs. … Adverbs are evil!” – Stephen King
“Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” – Mark Twain
Now, it is true there are times when adverbs are necessary; other times, properly used adverbs can liven up a sentence or strengthen a description.
That said, more often than not adverbs can be problematic – especially for young writers.
Here’s a basic overview from writingforward.com:
“Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. Adjectives modify nouns whereas adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and clauses. In fact, an adverb can modify an entire sentence. This gives adverbs a rather large playing field; maybe that explains why they are overused.”
Most adverbs end in -ly, and they are among the most worthless. However, the most worthless adverb (by far) is very. Stop using it. NOW! Writers who use very exemplify Twain’s comment about lazy writers.
To help you with this endeavor I have provided some examples of words modified by the adverb very. In parenthesis is a specific and rhetorically accurate verb(s) that eliminate the need for very:
Very angry (furious, irate) Very upset (distraught, disconsolate)
Very beautiful (gorgeous) Very cold (freezing)
Very big (massive, huge) Very strong (forceful)
Very boring (dull, mundane) Very calm (serene, peaceful)
Very poor (destitute) Very ugly (hideous)
Very cheap (stingy) Very small (petite)
Very clean (spotless) Very funny (hilarious)
Very short (brief) Very quiet (hushed, silent)
Very difficult (arduous) Very rich (wealthy)
Very dry (arid) Very expensive (costly)
Very bad (awful, horrible) Very tall (towering)
Very smart (intelligent) Very easy (effortless)
Very sad (sorrowful) Very wet (soaked)
This is probably a good time to offer another piece of advice: Regardless of how expansive your vocabulary is, purchase or use an online thesaurus and make it your new “best friend” for all writing assignments.
Now let’s deal with -ly adverbs. They are generally unnecessary and often repetitive. Fortunately it is easy to eliminate adverbs, especially when they modify verbs.
For example, the phrase “run quickly” can be used to describe someone who is running fast. But replace “run” with a more concrete or specific verb like sprinted or hurried and you no longer need “quickly.”
Here is another example: She cried uncontrollably. Replace cried with sobbed and you provide a specific descriptor and eliminate the adverb.
Then there are times when the verb choice is fine but students add an adverb that is merely redundant. For instance: the boy screamed loudly. Really? As opposed to screamed softly? Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Or this: She smiled happily. This phrase isn’t necessarily redundant as one can smile sadly. But replacing smile with beamed or grinned makes it clear the person is elated.
Why “walk slowly” when you can stroll?
Instead of saying someone spoke softly, why not say they whispered or mumbled?
Rather than say “she said jokingly,” just say “she joked.”
Also high on the list of adverbs to avoid are those that intensify, including but not limited to truly, really, actually, and extremely. Using them often creates the opposite effect and detracts from the phrase’s power because they are so overused.
For example, a “really important meeting” is no more consequential than an
“important” one; a person described as “extremely brilliant” is no more impressive than one described as “brilliant”; and a “truly perfect evening” is no more flawless than a “perfect” one. Again, concrete, specific words do not need adverbs.
When is it OK to use an adverb? When you absolutely must. Here are some examples of sentences that use adverbs well from (the adverbs are italicized):
Congress recently passed a new law.
She entered the room silently.
He drives a dark green sedan.
Yes, sometimes we need adverbs. We just need to use them sparingly.