Over and over, we hear various writing pundits and authors advise us to either not use adverbs at all or to limit them severely. And, when it comes to adverbs that modify verbs, I’m in that camp—I think finding a strong verb does the job much better than an adverb could.
For example, when I was reviewing one of my manuscripts prior to publication I spotted, gasp, an adverb. Here’s the sentence:
She saw Murphy, like a big, round boulder parting a stream of girly secretaries cramming in a buzz of noontime shopping—except this boulder stared blatantly at their bobbing chests as they passed.
“Stared blatantly?” Damn. Another case of making an adverb try to do the work of real description. To be fair, this was from my first novel, written several years ago, on the lower slopes of my learning curve.
In this case the answer lay, as usual, in the verb. I swapped out “stared blatantly” for “leered.” Much better, giving a clear picture with fewer words. While I was at it, I tightened the sentence a little, too:
She saw Murphy, like a big, round boulder parting a stream of girly secretaries cramming in a buzz of noontime shopping, leering at their bobbing chests.
And then I came upon a pair of adverbs in one sentence…
He found Emmaline to be annoyingly cheerful but pleasingly proficient.
But these adverbs worked for me. Wait, I thought, how come they seem right when I’ve preached loud and long to avoid adverbs? Then I noticed that these modified adjectives rather than verbs.
Good cholesterol and bad cholesterol?
There was a time when we believed that all cholesterol was bad. Then we learned that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
Well, I changed my position that all adverbs are suspect, if not bad. I think there are “good” adverbs, the ones that add just the right flavor to an adjective, enhancing it with a more complete shade of meaning.
Consider the sentence describing Emmaline. Could I have achieved what I wanted, which was to give insight into one character’s feeling and attitudes toward another, without the adverbs?
He found Emmaline to be cheerful but proficient.
Nope. I’ve lost how the viewpoint character feels about Emmaline’s personality.
I went on a search for other adverbs (using Microsoft Word’s Find tool to locate “ly” in words).
Her fair cheeks fetchingly reddened by the cold, she looked no older than a teenager.
Yep, for me this works as well. It would have been okay to write. . .
Her fair cheeks reddened by the cold, she looked no older than a teenager.
. . .and you would have gotten a picture. But take “fetchingly” out and you lose the point-of-view character’s reaction to the girl’s cheeks. With the addition of the adverb to this adjective, you also get the character’s experience, i.e. his emotional reaction to the appearance he sees—fetching, attractive.
The pattern I discovered is this: adverbs are a positive addition when coupled to adjectives in order to add a point-of-view character’s nuance to what would otherwise be simple description.
Note: the above is adapted from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells.
For what it’s worth,
© 2013 Ray Rhamey
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