First of all, what's an adverb? An adverb is at its root a word that describes or modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. In any sentence, an adverb answers the questions how, when, where or to what degree something is happening. If you're not clear on what exactly an adverb is or does, check out our Grammar 101 post on adjectives and adverbs to learn more!
So now you've got a sense of what an adverb is and how to spot it in your sentence - and now that you're spotting them, you're noticing an awful lot of them. It's very easy to misuse adverbs - in fact, the "very" in this sentence is an example of an adverb that gets overused frequently. Let's take a look at a few techniques to cut down on excess adverbs in our writing.
First, look for adverbs that are redundant: stating something you've already said.
When she saw Rory heading towards her, Amy grinned happily.
Faced with a horde of Daleks coming right for him, the Doctor made the only smart choice: he quickly ran away.
You don't know what you're talking about!" Amy shouted while she angrily stomped off.
Each of the italicized adverbs above is acting in a redundant way: when we see that Amy's grinning, or yelling and stomping, then we don't need an adverb to tell us that she's happy or angry. There may be some cases where you'd want to use an adverb describing how someone runs, but when faced by a horde of Daleks, there's only one way the Doctor's going to run. These adverbs can all be safely cut from their respective sentences without losing any meaning.
Adverbs with Dialogue
Pay attention to dialogue tags in your writing: when your characters speak, do they do so adverbly? Here are a few examples:
"What do you think?" she asked innocently.
"Tell me what happened!" she said excitedly.
"It's not that I don't trust you," he said reasonably.
"Here we go again," she responded tiredly.
If you see yourself doing this in your writing, be very careful: adverbs used like this are rarely necessary and often don't add anything to your work. If the reader can't tell that your character is tired, innocent, excited, or reasonable based on what's being said, then you probably need to revise the dialogue, not employ an adverb.
When used properly, however, adverbs with dialogue can add a lot to your meaning. Take the following example:
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Mr. President," said the Doctor, kindly.
The meaning isn't the same if I drop the adverb:
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Mr. President," said the Doctor.
Here, the second version can sound threatening, while the first version is a bit more true to character, since we know that the Doctor tries to solve conflicts peacefully whenever he can. It would take a lot more words to express that the Doctor's voice sounds kind without using an adverb than it does to just use the adverb. In an instance like this, the adverb can do a lot of work to help your characterization and move the story along, but please be wary of overusing adverbs with dialogue like in the examples above!
One group of adverbs gets used all the time, so frequently that we don't even notice that we're using them: intensifiers. Here's a brief list: actually, definitely, even, extremely, just, really, so, totally, truly, very.
One very quick way to eliminate extra adverbs from your writing is to make a pass through your story just cutting these out. Sometimes it's a useful exercise to notice which of these words you tend to reuse, and then count up all the uses in your story: if there are six "really"s in a paragraph, cut it down to one. If everything in your story is really great or extremely awesome, then it may be perceived as totally sucky by your reader.
One caveat here is if you have a character who really does speak this way - then you'll want to use these words to get your valley girl or surfer characterization just right. Otherwise, try to challenge yourself: find a way to express how "really great" it is without using "really"!
Use Stronger Verbs
One way to get rid of some sentences with adverbs is to use a stronger verb in the first place. Here are some examples:
Amy looked at Rory angrily.
Despite constant danger, the Doctor always successfully faces down his enemies.
And here are some examples of how you could rewrite those sentences to eliminate the adverb and use a stronger verb:
Amy glowered at Rory. (Amy scowled at Rory, Amy glared at Rory.)
Despite constant danger, the Doctor always succeeds.
Despite constant danger, the Doctor always wins his battles.
Those sentences tell us more about how the character feels or what's happening than the adverb version did, and they sound a lot better!
Finding Adverbs Quick(ly)
If you're using MS Word, you can press CTRL-F to get to the "Edit - Find" function. Type in the letters "ly" and press "Find" to see how many adverbs you've got in your story. (Not every adverb ends in "ly", but the most overused adverbs often do.) This is a quick way to locate the adverbs, and then you can decide on a case-by-case basis what to do with them.
When to Cut the Adverbs
The most important thing I want to say here is that cutting down your adverb count is an exercise for revision. When you're writing the first draft of your story, don't be fussing over adverbs: just write it! Later on, when you're revising and refining the story, that's the time to think about the adverbs. When you're writing fresh, that "slowly" or "angrily" or even "really" is important: they'll give you clues about your characters and plot that you might not get otherwise. First get the story on the page, then use those cues to explore your story more deeply as you revise. See what your adverbs are telling you, and then use them as an opportunity to push your writing further!
Grammar Girl: How to Eliminate Adverbs
Tips to Eliminate Unnecessarily Overused Adverbs
The Ardeon Writer's Exercise List: Those "ly" Ending Adverbs
On Writing: How to Break the "Eliminate Adverbs Rule" & Get Away With It!