My family and I love roller coasters and thrill rides. Over the last five years, we’ve crisscrossed the United States to visit theme parks in California, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. For twelve exhausting hours, we’ll zigzag across the grounds, riding our favorites again and again. It’s become a summertime vacation ritual.
Yet with every theme park visit, I hear this complaint: “Hurry up, Mom! You walk so slowly!”
It’s always the same story. Dozens of times throughout the day, I get swallowed up in the crowds as we race toward the next ride. The family stops to give me time to catch up, but their exasperation eventually boils over.
The inherent problem here is our difference of opinion: I don’t think I walk slowly! I move through the park at a brisk pace that’s comfortable for me.
So what does slowly mean, anyway?
This reminds me of an irksome writing rule, one that didn’t make sense to me for a long time: limiting adverbs. Every guide I read admonished writers about adverb usage, but I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them!
A quick search in an early draft of my novel revealed 1,276 “-ly” words! While this includes words such as probably and family, the majority were adverbs I’d employed as modifiers.
In the years since I wrote that draft, here’s what I’ve learned about this pesky part of speech:
1. Adverbs are subjective. My example shows slowly can mean something different to everyone. Replacing walk slowly with a strong, descriptive verb (saunter, shuffle, trudge, or amble) makes the scene more vivid and shows readers how someone moves.
2. Adverbs tell, rather than show. He glanced away sheepishly is a telling sentence. Showing readers what sheepishly looks like — He raked a hand through his hair and averted his gaze — gives readers something to visualize and provides insight into the character.
3. Some adverbs are redundant. He smiled happily. The radio blared loudly. I’ve also found definitely, extremely, very, and really can often be cut without changing a sentence’s meaning.
But I believe eliminating all adverbs from writing is overkill. Sometimes an adverb is the most concise word choice, in which case, I leave it in.
Author Jessica Bell writes:
“…sometimes [adverbs] just work. They serve a purpose…Not every single action needs to be poetic and unique.”
I couldn’t agree more. How do you feel about adverbs?