If it doesn't add meaning, nix the adverb


In everyday spoken English, adverbs run amok. We kneel
down; we close up, we pass things over to one another; we gather together; we follow behind; we cancel out each other’s votes and so on and on. The problem occurs when excess adverbs sneak into our writing. In many cases they add clutter rather than clarify meaning. When editing, check your use of adverbs and delete those that don't add value. In some instances, you can strengthen your prose by getting rid of a weak adverb and verb combo and substituting a strong verb. Instead of ”She spoke softly.” for instance, write “She whispered." In Write Tight: How To Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused and Concise, writer-editor William Brohaugh says adverbs do earn their keep at times. For example, he mentions the case when a verb-adverb combination can’t be distilled into a single word, such as in the sentence “He studiously ignored his father.” As Brohaugh points out, that sentence works because no single English word describes the concept of going to pains to make it clear one is not noticing something.

When choosing verbs let loose your sharpest arrows

Which one of the two sentences below would you prefer to read or hear spoken?

1. He is not a punctual person.

2. He rarely shows up on time.

Chances are you picked number two because it conveys the idea in a livelier way.

Words are like arrows that carry meaning to readers (and listeners too) says Elizabeth Danziger, author of
Get To The Point: Painless Advice for Writing Memos, Letters and E-Mails. And solid, razor sharp arrows are more likely to pierce the target than those that are flimsy and dull.

Verbs are the most dynamic words. They can help readers and listeners “see” the point. They can also add colour and increase the persuasiveness of your message. For all of those reasons, you should aim to use the strongest ones you can. Too often, however, writers make weak choices. Their quivers bulge with the verbs to be, have and do. These are linking verbs that provide general information. By taking a bit more time to rummage through your vocabulary, you can often come up with sharper alternatives.

As you write, get into the habit of asking yourself: can I make more precise word choices? When you finish a draft, read it through just once to check your verbs. Every time you come across a variation of to be, have and do, mark it with a highlighter. Then, see if you can swap in some zestier language.

You won’t be able to eliminate all of the connector verbs in your writing. Nor should you try, because they do serve a useful function. However, by replacing some of them with more dynamic verbs, you will make your writing far more precise and appealing to the final consumer.