How to Use Adverbs Effectively

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Our post today will explain how to use adverbs effectively. We will also expound a little on the popular adage, show don’t tell.

This is how I feel when I read/edit something in which the author ran amuck with the adverbs—specifically, adverbs added to speaker tags:

I would like to reiterate that no one word, phrase, tense, voice, etc. is inherently wrong. What’s bad is the overuse and reliance on such at the expense of clarity and style.

Except for grammar, there really are no “rules” in writing. It is an art, not a science. However, if you are just starting out, it’s okay to follow rules while you find your voice. Compare it to first learning how to ride a bike as a child. You probably used training wheels. Think of these rules as your training wheels until you get your balance.

With that said, let’s talk about the rule, show don’t tell.

What does this mean, and how does it relate to adverbs?

Let’s give an example. The first one will rely heavily on telling. Note the adverbs attached to the speaker tags.

Tina took a sip of her very hot coffee. 

“Ouch!” she said exasperatedly. 

“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked sleepily. He was very tired, and had just started to nod off.

“Nothing,” Tina said as she angrily slammed her mug down onto the table. Bruce rolled his eyes and yawned.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?” Tina asked irritatingly. Bruce snored in response.

So, conventional writing wisdom states you must show and not tell. This is a good rule to follow, although, not always practical, but that’s another post for another day.

Novice writers, incompetent writers, inexperienced writers need told this rule over and over again, because they don’t know what it means. They are missing the critical piece of the puzzle and it is my contention that the critical piece is ADVERBS.

Allow me to rewrite the sample above by showing, and we will analyze the difference.

Tina took a sip of her coffee, steam wafting from the mug.

“Ouch.” She winced.

“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked, nodding off with eyelids half-open. 

“Nothing.” Tina slammed her mug down. Bruce rolled his eyes and yawned.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?” Tina asked as Bruce began to snore.

Here is a line by line analysis:

Tina took a sip of her very hot coffee.

Tina took a sip of her coffee, steam wafting from the mug.

Okay, in the second sentence we are showing by describing something that hot liquid does. In this example, we use steam, along with a present participle verb, wafting. Notice how I eliminated the adverb, very? I contend that adverbs can make you lazy. By replacing it with a description of what hot liquid does, we are setting a scene for our reader.

“Ouch!”she said exasperatedly.

“Ouch.” She winced.

In the first example, since we haven’t described the contents of the mug or set the scene in any meaningful way, we have to use exclamation points and an adverbial speaker tag to get the point across.

Notice how wordy and awkward that is compared to the second example? The second example is concise, and eliminates the need for an exclamation point. We’ve already set the scene. The reader can infer that burning one’s tongue with hot coffee is an unpleasant surprise.

I’d like to note that you could also write, “Ouch,” she said in exasperation. This would be an adverb clause, since it explains how. Adverb and adjective clauses can add some variety to your writing, especially if you don’t use a lot of he said/she said speaker tags.

“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked sleepily. He was very tired, and had just started to nod off. 

“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked, nodding off with eyelids half-open. 

This is a prime example of telling vs. showing. In the first example, we are telling our reader, with copious adverbs, how our new character, Bruce, is doing. Whereas in the second one, we show by describing Bruce’s appearance. Half-open eyelids tend to appear on someone who is about to fall asleep. This description is also another example of an adverbial clause.

“Nothing,” Tina said as she angrily slammed her mug down onto the table. Bruce rolled his eyes and yawned.

“Nothing.” Tina slammed her mug down. Bruce rolled his eyes and yawned.

Sometimes, like with these two examples, you can see how showing and not telling can shorten passages and make them concise. You want to use speaker tags sparingly, especially when only two people are conversing. Advance the action for your reader. Instead of he said/she said, have your character do something instead. Set the scene and let your reader escape to it. Real life is a drag.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?” Tina asked irritatingly. Bruce snored in response.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?” Tina asked as Bruce began to snore.

The adverb irritatingly could be confusing for the reader. Is Tina irritated? Or irritating? Do you see how unnecessary words can lead to confusion? In the context of this story, however, it’s clear that Tina is irritated with that damn Bruce. But, you don’t need an adverb on a speaker tag to get that point across. If you set the scene correctly, your reader will be able to discern the tone.

Note: as long as they have an IQ higher than a box of rocks.

Questions, comments, points of clarification? Or my personal favorite, complaints and ad hominem attacks?!

 

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