Is this a photo of a woman sprinting, or a woman running quickly?

This is a post about writing, but because I’m linking to a New York Times story about Donald Trump, it may very well be seen as a political one. But the story made something clear that I stress to students in writing classes over and over again: adverbs are usually your enemy and should be eliminated from your copy whenever possible.

From the Times’s news analysis, which was how news organizations were struggling to define story lines centered around truths, untruths, lies, spin and “alternative facts” (emphasis added):

Still, carefully chosen words can capture that. “A whole vocabulary has come bubbling up that would not have been used five years ago,” Mr. Nunberg said in an interview. “People are going to have to sit down and decide: Are we going to want to go over the moral consequences of telling an untruth? The mere fact of it being untrue? Or the fact that it’s bogus, baseless or groundless?”
Some news organizations used words like “falsely” or “wrongly” — adverbs that tend to weaken the impact — in framing what the president said. Some used “with no evidence,” or “won’t provide any proof,” or “unverified claims,” or “repeats debunked claim”…To say that someone has “lied,” an active verb, or has told a “lie,” a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.

The example I use in class is the simplest. Which is a stronger phrase: “The girl quickly ran” or “The girl sprinted”?

“Sprinted” is an active verb, meaning it moves the sentence forward. And in a writing climate where less is more and efficiency is key, choosing the right verb in an effort to eliminate the clunky adverb means you use fewer words to convey the same point.

When I see an adverb in a first draft, I tell the student (or remind myself, as, like all writers, I tend to go for the easy out on first drafts), an adverb usually means you didn’t spend enough time looking for the right verb. So you settled for an okay verb and propped it up with an adverb to better convey what you’re actually trying to say.

Adverbs are not unavoidable, but taking a minute to try and replace each one in a draft with an active (i.e. better) verb is a quick trick for more effective writing.

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