"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." - Walt Disney

Friday, April 1, 2011

Annoying Adverbs

Adverbs are used to modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and usually end in -ly. Many writers and publishers will tell you these adverbs are a sign of weak or timid writing.
Author Stephen King complains about them in his memoir, On Writing, saying, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…” King goes on to say you should never even use them in dialogue attribution if you can avoid it. He means you should always use “said” without adding an emotional tag like “sadly”, ”menacingly” or “acidly”.
However, even in the great King’s books you can find adverbs. I, myself am guilty of using them (suddenly, quickly, angrily etc.). Most writers do at some point. The key is to replace any unnecessary ones. Ask yourself if the –ly word is the best way to write the sentence or if there is a more active verb you can use. If there is any way to say the same thing in fewer words, or if it’s not adding to the sentence, omit them.
When I write a rough draft I don’t worry about them. I just get my ideas on paper and these adverbs become place holders for a richer description upon rewrite. Here are some examples from my own WIP. I have drawn a line through the original adverbs and placed the new choice in bold.

Joe walked lazily strolled toward the building.
He frowned angrily scowled.
Jane ran quickly from fled the hall.
She went quickly hurried away.
“Throw that away.” She said loudly shouted.
Jane quietly walked crept down the hall.
He firmly placed slammed the figurine down on the mantel.
She turned her head slowly.
Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ll change the last one. There is a reason for this action. Remember, there is nothing wrong with using adverbs, all writers do so, but use them wisely and only occasionally. Otherwise, they become distracting.
Also, notice how the replaced words create a mental image. This is what publishers mean by “Show, Don’t Tell.” Monica Wood, Description, suggests you “circle your adverbs, especially the ones that end in "ly". Examine your adverbs to make sure you aren't forcing them to do the hard work of observation for you. Instead of telling us that the heroine works "tirelessly," tell us about the calluses on her hands or her heavy walk.”

Repetition is another danger of using adverbs. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, says most adverbs are unnecessary. ”You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly - "blare" connotes loudness. Don't write that someone clenched his teeth tightly - there's no other way to clench teeth.”
Editing tip: When you have finished your final draft, edit using the "find" function for "ly" words. Next, read the sentence containing the adverb. Decide whether or not to correct it. Adverbs are all valid words, if used in moderation, but are prone to misuse, overuse and abuse.

Please feel free to share your own advice and examples.


Bish Denham said...

Sometimes I love a well placed adverb. Too bad they have fallen so out of favor.

Linda H. said...

Adverbs? Adverbs! I specifically voted for action writing!! So, I am taking action myself. I will not longer read this blog!!!!
April Fool! Of course I won't stop reading your blog. Even though I voted for action writing, this post is about action is a way. Using strong verbs instead of adverbs shows action best, and it is something I constantly need to focus on in my revisions. I like how you presented the topic and gave many examples from your own work. Write on, Sylvia! Can't wait to see B.

Cat Lavoie said...

Great post! :) My rough drafts are ALWAYS (annoyingly) full of adverbs! ;) Thanks for following my blog. Have a great weekend!

Sylvia Ney said...

Linda - Sorry, but you were out voted! ;-) However, I might be persuaded to use one of your other suggested topics. I haven't even planned the "B" post yet!

KM Nalle said...

I love how you illustrated your point here. I recently started revising my WIP. I never understood what the fuss was about until I took out the adverbs to test drive the theory. Wow! What a huge difference.

Paul Joseph said...

Great post, Sylvia! This is one of my main struggles, and I love the examples you used to "show" how it's done! I think you have the right idea - don't worry in the first draft, because it is something that jumps out at you in revisions. When you go into revision mode, the adverbs will remind you what image you were trying to convey, and you can play with the wording now that you are focusing more on language and not so much getting the ideas down. It's hard to do two things at once!

Anonymous said...

Great post. My struggles are with the linking verbs more than the adverbs but trying to find the right active verb can be a struggle. One phase of my revision is going to be dedicated to this issue.

Allison said...

I loved this and will have to bookmark it... Even after majoring in English and creative writing, I still have trouble with adverbs and action writing.

RosieC said...

Good tips, Sylvia. And thanks for sharing. My critique partner has read me the riot act time and again for too many of them, that's for sure. I'm now afraid to use anything that ends in -ly :)

East for Green Eyes

Nate Wilson said...

Those are some particularly apt examples from your own work, Sylvia. You've illustrated your point fantastically.

Um, I mean: Excellent examples, Sylvia. You rock.

Paula Martin said...

"The key is to replace any unnecessary ones."
Oh, how I agree with this! Yes, delete the unnecessary ones, or replace them with a stronger action word. But, as you've said, there are times when they provide exactly the right modifying effect on a verb. As with everything, moderation is the key!
Look forward to more of your A-Z blogs this month - good luck with the challenge.

Joyful Minimalism said...

Great post!

I have really stuck to the: take all adverbs out of your story and then you may put one back in rule I read somewhere. That one serves me very well :)

Greetings from a fellow a to Z-er

Su said...

Sigh... I love adverbs. And I have to go back through every last thing I write to get them all down to a controllable level.

Angela said...

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs. Hey, that's a good one!

Francine Howarth said...


Ah, the hellish little demon, adverb. But, even demons have their place in a thrilling fast-paced action sequence. Just remember Stephen King was a rookie writer at one time, and in his old novels it shows! ;)


Jennifer Shirk said...

I love my adverbs, but I have been chopping out quite a bit of them during my edits. :)

Laura Eno said...

Wonderful examples. I love adverbs but search for action verbs first.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Good examples of how to improve prose by taking out adverbs. I still use them here n there, but less is more.

Sarah Allan said...

I just wanted to say that I loved your adverb examples, with the stress on showing, not telling. As a fellow writer, it's definitely something I have to keep in mind, and often catch in the editing process. I gave you a follow, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of your A-Z entries.


Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

Great post! Adverbs are not evil! You give great examples of how adverbs can be lazy and how using the right action verb does eliminate the need for the adverb. But sometimes the adverb works!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the follow and this fantastic post! I'm following you too.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good choice for the letter A. I do a lot of critiques for newer writers, and my favorite task is crossing out as many adverbs as I can.

Catch My Words said...

Great post! I'm not a big fan of adverbs either. My post is an interview with a super cool, new agent. I didn't ask Mr. Baer what he thinks of adverbs. Hmm?

Elizabeth Mueller said...

I just love that 'find' button. It highlights all them bad boys so I can lynch them off my WIP! Great post!

♥.•*¨ A-Z buddy ¨*•.♥

Laura Pauling said...

Sometimes adverbs are just a tool, but sometimes they are needed! Great post for A!

anthony stemke said...

Adverbs do have their place. I love to cook, and many recipes say "chopped fine" which grates on my ears. Your post is excellently written (oops).

Jen HaHA said...

Can we make an exception for Mad Libs? That's how my boys learned the parts of speech before starting school. Can I still do things swimmingly because that one makes me smile.
Jen Hemming and Hawing Again

Sylvia Ney said...

Jen - I love Mad Libs! Of course your boys (and you) should keep doing them. They are an important source of fun and learning. There is nothing wrong with "ly" words. Many writers just fall into the habit of overusing them. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Wanda said...

Oh I guilty of this one. Great tips you have shared.

scribbleandedit.blogspot.co.uk said...

Another great A-Z post (I'm working backwards from C) Yes there's a college course that apparently bans adverbs and adjectives, now that is harsh! LOL! :O)

Alex Ong said...

Alex from Breakfast Every Hour was here.

Porky said...

This is the best-justified and most practical approach I can remember reading on the subject.

Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

This is a thought-provoking post. I use adverbs SPARINGLY. All things in moderation, I believe. Sometimes the reader needs a good adverb to get the picture.
Be well.

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