Bad Phrases in Writing 2: Adverbs!

To follow from last time I did this, let’s talk about words to strike from writing. Many writing books worth their salt will tell you to kill adverbs, and with good reason: they make it easy to suck as a writer, as they open the door to laziness.

Let’s go with a few to illustrate:

  • obviously — if you have to say “this is obvious,” either that’s unnecessary or it’s really not
  • impossibly — this is not a synonym for very. Saying, for instance, “impossibly dark” is a wince-worthy phrase that you don’t see (for good reason) outside of crappy fantasy.
  • uniquely — also not a synonym for very. (This is similar to saying “somewhat unique” — the word “unique” has a binary meaning, and isn’t a synonym for “rare.”)
  • usually — this is an oft-overused word, one that can be easily cut.
  • very — this is, more often than not, dull. It’s “telling, not showing” as the old adage says. Similar: all synonyms and faux-synonyms of very.
  • (same as verb) — anything like “runs quickly” or “brags haughtily”. The rule: if you remove the adverb and the sentence doesn’t change meaning, then you don’t need it.

The trick with adverbs is understanding when to use them, and that comes first with killing those you’re overusing. Take the last document you wrote — short story, game text, whatever. Look for all the adverbs you’re using. List all the ones you’re using once and the ones you’re using more than once.

For those you’re using more than once, try to go the next three pieces without using them, and watch how that impacts your writing. For those you used just once, go the next piece without using those either.

My fellow editors: what other adverbs go on your chopping block? Are there situations where you keep them?

– Ryan


11 Responses to Bad Phrases in Writing 2: Adverbs!

  1. Eddy says:

    “Literally” is NOT the same as “very.”

  2. Brian Engard says:

    When you’re using an adverb in a sentence, that’s a cue to take a good hard look at it. Often you can re-write that sentence without the adverb, and it’ll be a stronger sentence for it.

  3. metaDM says:

    I encourage everyone to use as many adverbs as possible. Then when you realize you are 800 words over your count, search, replace, and delete with impugnity. I fuck adverbs like a boss.

  4. “I fuck adverbs like a boss” bwahahaha!

    I’ve been pretty lenient on my authors but not on myself. The reason is just laziness but that will change.

  5. Andy says:

    “Really”…and now that I think of it, “surely” and “truly” really (AUGH! Leaving that in, to demonstrate my own shortcomings) need to be cut out. I overuse the latter two with alacrity, I’m afraid.

  6. Ryan Macklin says:

    Another one I have had to deal with: immediately. Almost every time, you can kill that word and the *cough* immediacy of the line doesn’t change.

    And actually. Man, so many shitty adverbs.

    Occasionally can often be substituted with the whatever makes the situation occasional, or just plain removed.

    (I almost typed “removed entirely,” but again that doesn’t actually change the meaning of anything, and the emphasis that adds isn’t warranted here.)

    Currently — unless the past or future is crucial to what’s going on, you can strike currently without any change in meaning.

    Clearly, as in “clearly shows” — “shows” is just as clear. As with most adverbs like these, these are best when used as a comparator, not just standalone. When something is now clear that wasn’t before, “clearly” can work.

    Highly as emphasis. If you really need emphasis, get specific. Something like “highly toxic” is as meaningful as “toxic.” Either tell us what “highly” actually means, or cut it and move on — maybe it’s not that important of a detail.

    Badly, particularly in “badly damaged” or “badly hurt” — again, the adverb adds nothing.

    – Ryan

  7. Paul Tevis says:

    My rule: If an adverb adds information, it gets to stay. Otherwise…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Indeed. Of course, there’s a bit of skill in knowing if an adverb really does add information (which can include emphasis and tone), and knowing if there’s still a stronger way to deliver that. And that said, it’s the otherwise part is one element where I certainly strike them.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, one place where I’m likely to leave them in: informal speech.

      – Ryan