This post is about using (overusing) adverbs in narrative not in dialogue.

While adverbs have their place, (even in narrative) beginners tend to use them to far to often, and established authors use them because they know they can get away with it. When it comes to adverb usage, the rules doe all should be:

1.) Omit the adverb if it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.
2.) Adverb usage means you’re not using a strong enough verb.
3.) If the adverb passes these two tests, you should keep it

Fast food employees need rules to do their job, but we’re writers, we aren’t flipping burgers. We need to know the “Why?” or we get cooked (Rejected).

Before you send those hard worked pages of your novel to an agent or publisher for consideration, follow the adverb rules listed above. If you do some soul searching and honest reflection you’ll find 99% of adverbs (even the most judiciously (lol) place ones), to an editor sound like nails on a chalkboard. You’ve played by the rules, yet in all honesty your adverbs failed the test. There has to be more to this adverb thing.

Why, you ask? Why this unnecessary prejudice against the lowly adverb? After your adverb-soul-searching I just spoke of, you’ll find these three reasons to avoid adverbs helpful.

Reason 1 The use of any adverb may be a strong indicator of some contextual problems surrounding it, so it becomes a form of telling, not showing. Whether you’re writing in 1st person or 3rd person, at some point in your story you provide the reader with descriptive narrative. One example is in describing a setting the character is in, entering , or going to enter. Even if you have an adverb in the scene that passes all the rules, pull out from the sentence and ask yourself  “Am I doing a good enough job with the narration.”  It’s possible you’re not painting the picture you want. What you need is a brush stroke, not a touch up. The adverb is a bandage for bad exposition.

Reason 2 The adverb may be an indicator of a point of view issue. This was a problem for many scenes for my co-author me. Our first book, written twenty years ago and recently pick up by a publisher, had many weak passages. We were confused until we realized we needed a tighter POV. (Pounded into our head by our publisher Show – Don’t tell.) Twenty years ago we felt the adverbs conveyed the feelings of the scenes central character. Once we understood the problem, the adverbs disappeared and our scenes are much better.

Reason 3 Once you see the difference you’ll understand how adverbs distance the connection between the reader and your characters, not enhance it. As writers there’s a tendency to use adverbs because we feel we’re heightening the reader experience, but in fact, once you take an honest look, most of the time the opposite is true. 

(True Story) Take this excerpt from the first scene in a novel. The widower’s young son wakes from a terrifying nightmare. The father enter the room and quiets him. 

He hugged his weeping son, kissed his forehead, then gently rocked him back to sleep.

The adverb “gently” sounds like a good adverb. You would think so. The editor struck down. Your first thought is, that would remove the meaning. But in fact, the loss of the adverb enhances the scene.

He hugged his weeping son, kissed his forehead, then rocked him back to sleep.

By omitting the adverb “gently”, it forces the reader to imagine the scene. And this, my dear writer, is what you want the reader to do. You want them to engage, to empathize and imagine. You want them to become your character. If you modify your verbs to tell the reader exactly what is going on, you keep them arms length and they never become invested in the character or your story.

At the Las Vegas writers conference an agent told us “If I find more than three adverbs in three hundred words I stop and send it back”.

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