Monday, July 2, 2018

Yes, It's Okay to Use Adverbs and Be Verbs in Your Novel, But—

Grab a novel. Any published novel will do. Open it up to any page. 

Look for adverbs. These include most words that end in -ly, like quickly, slowly, and carefully, as well as words like always, never, sometimes, often, too, very, and then.

Now look for forms of the verb be: am, is, are, was, were, been, being, and be.

I'm guessing you find some examples pretty quickly. These words are both common and useful. 

Many new writers are told to avoid them. The advice is based on some good wisdom. When overused, these words can result in weak writing. New writers tend to overuse them, and they are warned not to.

The problem occurs when writers go too far. They decide to strip all instances of be verbs and adverbs from their writing. The result is an unnatural-sounding mess.

Do not attempt to eradicate these words from your writing. However, if you find that you overuse them, look for ways to reduce your dependence on these words.

Overusing Adverbs

Overusing adverbs may be a sign of weak word choice. Eliminate some adverbs by picking stronger words that don't need modification.

        weak: speak quietly
        stronger: whisper 

        weak: walk heavily
        stronger: plod, trudge

Some adverbs, like very and really, can often be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

         weak: very angry
         stronger: angry, furious

Overusing Be Verbs

Likewise, overusing be verbs can be a sign of weak sentence structure.

Some people mistakenly believe that be always indicates the passive voice. This simply is not true. A sentence is passive when the subject receives the action and when a combination of be and a past participle are used.

          not passive: She was teaching. She was a teacher.
          passive: The students were taught by her.

Active sentences are generally considered stronger than passive sentences, but occasionally it makes sense to use the passive voice. Just avoid doing so too often. 

Even sentences that are not technically passive can be weak, and overusing be verbs can be a sign of this. 

         weak: He was cold.
         stronger: Shivering, he grabbed another blanket. 


Breaking the Rules

If avoiding adverbs and be verbs is a rule, it's one that's made to be broken. The key is knowing when.

Strong writing does not come from following broad rules blindly. It comes from learning to use the best words, structures, and techniques for the job at hand. It's about paying attention to the rhythm of the page and varying sentences. 

All writers have crutch words  i.e., words that they overuse. These crutch words may be adverbs or be verbs. Identify your crutch words and find ways to use them less often, but don't eliminate whole classes of words from your vocabulary. 

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