I wish I’d known this when I first started doing creative writing. (And in case you’re wondering about the featured image, don’t worry, we’ll get to that.😉)
I wrote 2 and 1/2 books of a fanfic series and over fifty chapters of an original story before I started learning about adverbs, speech tags, adjectives, and a bunch of other tips and tricks that have improved my writing massively.
I actually learned most of these things from Jerry B. Jenkins’s content — you can check out his website here — when I first discovered his teaching curriculum. I was lucky enough to discover Jerry’s content just as he’d opened up his writers’ guild for new students, so I managed to join that without having to be on the waitlist. However, I’m going to summarise some of what I’ve learned for you Storykeepers today — and focus on one important thing.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Adverbs in Creative Writing
When we were in primary/secondary school, we were all taught at some point how to use adverbs to modify a verb, or tell someone how the speaker is feeling.
Admittedly this post was inspired by the fact my younger sister just started learning about this in her language, because I want to tell you today what I told her—
The stuff they teach you is unhelpful.
I was going to say it was wrong, but that isn’t fair. In school assignments and many other specific circumstances, using adverbs gleefully and generously (see what I did there?) is perfectly okay. Especially if your teacher wants you to. Or even if you’re writing a book that’s kinda whimsical and has a character like Mr. Lemonchello in Escape from Lemonchello’s Library or Oskar N. Reteep from The Wingfeather Saga, who both use adverbs in their speech because they enjoy it — if you have a good purpose and are using adverbs intentionally, it can be fine.
However, as a general rule, funny characters and specific situations aside—
It’s better to avoid this in creative writing.
Unless you want to spend many years doing this, only to discover — like I did — that using adverbs robs power from your writing.
Most of the time.
Let me explain.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Adverbs In Creative Writing
Let’s compare these two paragraphs:
“Hey, Mary, the donkey’s escaping!” Joseph angrily put down the saddle he’d been carrying and chased after it, running as rapidly as he could. He easily caught up to it, and pulled crossly on the reins. “What do you think you’re doing? My wife needs you.”
“Mary, the donkey’s escap — get back here, idolatrous animal!” Joseph slammed the saddle to the ground and gave chase, racing harder than an Olympian. He overtook the beast in seconds and yanked its reins. “What do you think you’re doing? My wife needs you.”
The first paragraph is okay, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you write like this. All of my earlier writing was like this — in fact, it was likely worse.
However, the second paragraph is stronger in terms of writing technique.
Let’s break down why.
In the first paragraph, the dialogue, while it’s trying — and it’s not bad — isn’t strong enough on its own to convey Joseph’s frustration. He could have said this in a worried tone. Or a fearful tone. Or just an informative one.
But in the second paragraph, because I cut the adverbs and therefore can’t rely on them to convey Joseph’s feelings, I had to make sure the dialogue could stand on its own — and still convey his frustrated tone.
Forcing yourself to have stronger dialogue like this also gives an opportunity to use dialogue as more than just dialogue — it can be a way to ground the reader in your time period/culture. Which brings us to my second point.
Metaphors and Similies Can Add More Flavour Than Adverbs
What’s more compelling? ‘Running as rapidly as he could,’ or ‘racing harder than an Olympian’? The first one isn’t bad — but the second one uses a stronger verb ‘racing’ instead of ‘running,’ negating the need for an adverb — and not having the adverb made me think about how to convey Joseph’s max speed in a more interesting way.
Putting in the Olympian metaphor makes us think about Greece. The Olympic Games were held in Ancient Greece from 776 BC, which coupled with the donkey, the saddle, the phrase ‘idolatrous animal’ and of course the names Mary and Joseph, really grounds us in an ancient time period. Cultural references like this are really fun, and are a great part of worldbuilding, both in historical or speculative novels.
Cutting adverbs can give us a good reason to convey something cool about the world, when we try to think of stronger ways and verbs to convey the meaning we were going for. Speaking of verbs …
Stronger Verbs are Better than Weak Verb + Adverb
Why convey in two words what you could convey in one? Take the first part of the example sentence after the dialogue above. In the first example:
‘Joseph angrily put down the saddle he’d been carrying and chased after it.’
In the second example:
‘Joseph slammed the saddle to the ground and gave chase.’
In the first example, there are a few problems. Putting down isn’t a strong verb, so we needed an adverb to tell us how Joseph put the saddle down. Saying it was the saddle he’d been carrying is redundant — if he put it down, we know he was carrying it. This is what Jerry Jenkins calls RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain, and/or Give the Reader Credit.
It’s okay to trust the readers to get it.
Jerry also has a whole post on why you should use strong verbs — which I’ll link to here. If you want an even deeper dive, go check out his post.😊
Back to our examples — in the second example, I used ‘slammed’ — because it’s a strong verb and conveys just how frustrated Joseph is. I could have added ‘down’ instead of ‘to the ground’, but that’s just my personal preference — it’s also more specific, as we wouldn’t know what he was slamming the saddle onto otherwise. Saying ‘to the ground’ also eliminates the need for ‘down’ as we know the ground is down.
Another example of using a stronger verb as opposed to a weak verb + an adverb is in the second sentence. Let’s break it down.
First example: ‘He easily caught up to it, and pulled crossly on the reins.’
Second example: ‘He overtook the beast in seconds and yanked its reins.’
In the first example, part of the problem could have been solved by just omitting the adverbs, and having ‘he caught up to it and pulled on the reins.’ However, except in the dialogue, the subject of ‘it’ hasn’t been addressed. Sometimes it’s good to trust the reader to get it, but here I felt it was better to be clear — especially as my brain did a double-take reading it without the clarification.
Gotta trust your gut on these things.
Using ‘the beast’ also highlights in a slightly sarcastic undertone how Joseph is feeling about this animal right now. Highlighting the short time it took him to catch up shows how fast he was running, too.
In the second part of the sentence, using yanked instead of pulled means no adverb is required to convey Joseph’s annoyance. Yanked is a stronger verb — yanking things normally couples with feeling frustrated.
It’s better, if you can, to use a stronger verb than to use a weak verb + an adverb. Using strong verbs makes your writing tighter — it also adds depth of feeling and spice to your work.
When You Should Use Adverbs (Or More Like, When It’s Okay To Do So)
By now you might be wondering if adverbs are a complete no-no. I don’t think that’s the case. There are certain places I will use adverbs, and I’ll tell you a couple of the more prominent ones.
One place I use adverbs is if I’m not interested in spending ages showing you how someone feels, for the sake of trimming down my word count. For example:
Sure,” Bob said softly. “Let’s do it.”
“Sure,” Bob brushed back a strand of his little sister’s hair, his heart filling with warmth. “Let’s do it.”
In some circumstances, the second sentence would be better. However, say there had already been a long conversation between Bob and his little sister, and we already knew he feels tender towards her hopes and dreams. Saying ‘he said softly’ conveys his gentle warmth without putting in more description than we need.
My older sister put up an argument that it could be ‘he said in hushed tones’ instead of ‘he said softly’, but in my opinion that adds more words — and also conveys a different feeling. Just like saying he whispered wouldn’t be correct — he’s not whispering — his voice is becoming gentle, special, sweet.
I also feel like there’s a difference between smiling slightly and smiling. One is a much smaller smile. However, Jerry Jenkins says that these are hedging verbs, and you either smile or you don’t. I feel like there’s a distinction — but that’s just my opinion. He’s more experienced than I am, so he’s probably right. But sometimes you have to know the rules to break them.😉 But if you do break them, make you sure you break them intentionally and well.
Others places where I feel like there’s a distinction:
Two brothers punching each other — as opposed to punching each other lightly. The latter implies a jest or gentle familial gesture, the former, well — who knows how hard the punch was. An average punch actually hurts.
Mart gave his friend a gentle push. Mart gave his friend a push.
Which of the above conveys friendliness more?
These are just my opinions, and all of the above examples could cut the adverbs by thinking about how to show the action of the feeling through stronger verbs and descriptions. However, sometimes, telling is more appropriate — and adverbs can work as a shortcut.
Most of the time, it’s better to cut adverbs, as it makes your writing stronger and forced you to come up with more creative and meaningful ways to show how people feel and how they do things. However, in some circumstances, like whimsical dialogue or when you want to convey something and don’t have lots of space to do it, it’s okay to use an adverb here and there. Two or three adverbs in a book won’t ruin the story — so don’t feel bad if you have a few.
But in general, cutting adverbs will make your writing stronger.
And isn’t that what we all want, as authors?
Your turn, Storykeepers! How do you feel about adverbs? And is there any technical aspect of writing you’d like me to cover next? Let me know in the comments!