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When Is It Okay to Use Adverbs in Creative Writing?

Many creative writing teachers will tell you that you shouldn’t use adverbs in your writing. They may even throw a fit if you try to argue that there’s a place for them within your narratives.

The question is: when is it okay to use adverbs in creative writing? And, more importantly, how can you use them effectively so your writing doesn’t come off as saccharine?

Real Life vs. Creative Writing

The line between writing for fun and writing for work grows more and more blurred as time goes by. Thanks to the rise of the internet and its blogging platform, content creators can now connect with an audience across the world. This new global community has enabled everyone from wannabe screenwriters to hobby bloggers to flourish.

While some see this as a negative trend, I believe it’s opened up a new world of opportunity for creative types. And perhaps, more importantly, it’s allowed them to experiment with language and style in a way that wouldn’t have been feasible prior to the digital age.

As a creative writing teacher, I try to impart to my students the importance of constantly being mindful of what is and what is not appropriate language for the contexts in which they’re writing. Even in creative writing, diction and language variation is vital for making a narrative interesting and engaging.

When Is Now Generally Acceptable?

The answer to that question depends on a number of variables, including the form you’re writing in and the genre you’re working in. For instance, in creative nonfiction or memoir, adverbs may work quite well. Consider the following excerpt from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published in 1817:

“When my sister Elizabeth discovered that I’d taken up penning again, despite the dismal attempt I made before her death, she implored me to write something for her amusement. So here I am, ready to set down the events of my life as I remember them.”

In this passage, the author uses adverbs to create a sense of motion and description of the events: “As I write this, I can see her beautiful smile, which was always my inspiration.”

Though the writing isn’t exactly natural, the language is quite engaging. Adjectives and adverbs can help a reader keep pace with the story, and the repeated use of “so” and “now” makes it clear that this is a retrospective account.

When Is It Appropriate to Use Aromantic Language?

In romantic comedies, adverbs have a tendency to creep in around the edges. Think about the overused “but…” structures in chick flicks:

“But…she’s pretty, but…he’s rich, but…they’re both nice people, but…”

In these scenes, the use of adverbs doesn’t enhance the writing very much; sometimes it even seems like an afterthought, tacked on at the end to make the language more romantic.

While adverbs can be effective when used sparingly in creative writing, they should never be the central focus of a sentence. Consider the following excerpt from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, published in 1978:

“Aunt Harriet was a disciplinarian; she could be severe and stubborn. But she was also a loving person who saw the best in everyone.”

In this passage, the author describes how Aunt Harriet’s personality varies depending on the situation. At first, she is stern and unyielding, but as the narrative progresses, her behavior softens.

The lesson here is that you should never use phrases like “suddenly swooped down,” because it sounds silly when applied to someone who’s been thinking for a while. However, the language used to describe Aunt Harriet’s personality shift is highly evocative, and it makes the passage far more compelling.

Overall, How Can You Use Adverbs Ineffectivelly?

To put it simply, if you use a lot of adverbs, it will come off as forced and unnatural. So, in general, try to avoid using them unless you have no other choice. When you absolutely need an adverb, consider using a synonym or an antonym instead.

The bottom line is this: no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, be mindful of the ways in which you choose to use language. Some words and phrases can be highly effective when applied sparingly, while others can grate on the ear if used too frequently. Try as much as possible to use the former and vary your language choice accordingly.