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Debunking Writing Myths: “Eliminate ALL Adverbs”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eliminate every single adverb from your writing because adverbs are bad, bad, bad.

.
.

Though adverbs should be used sparingly, sometimes you do actually need them.

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First, let’s define what an adverb truly is:

An adverb is a word used to modify, or qualify, a verb (or verbal), an adjective, or another adverb. It usually answers one of these questions: When? Where? How? Why? Under what conditions? To what degree?

Adverbs modifying adjectives or other adverbs usually intensify or limit the intensity of the word they modify. . . . . The negators not and never are classified as adverbs. A word such as cannot contains the helping verb can and the adverb not. . . .

Adverbs can modify prepositions (Helen left just before midnight), prepositional phrases (The budget is barely on target), subordinate clauses (We will try to attend, especially if you will be there), or whole sentences (Certainly Joe did not intend to insult you).

Many adverbs are formed by adding –ly to adjectives (normal–normally; smooth–smoothly). But don’t assume that all words ending in –ly are adverbs or that all adverbs end in –ly. Some adjectives end in –ly (lovely, friendly) and some adverbs don’t (always, here, there). When in doubt, consult a dictionary.

(From The Bedford Handbook, Fifth Edition, by Diana Hacker)

Something I have been known to do when critiquing, editing, or judging contest entries is, upon opening the document, doing a universal search for ly and highlighting every instance of it throughout the document.

Why? Not because adverbs are bad words, but because an overreliance on adverbs is a sign of weak writing and insufficient revision. Unlike any other word-group in the English language, adverbs have a way of pointing themselves out—because the majority of them do end in –ly. (And then there are our other little favorites just and very.)

I’ve discussed, at length, using adverbs in embellished dialogue tags here.

One of the main reasons we don’t want to rely on adverbs in our writing is that adverbs tell rather than show. To pull an example from that post on dialogue tags:

      Kelly answered hoarsely, coughing from the powder the airbag had released.

      Kelly’s throat stung and scratched, and she coughed, unable to get the nasty, metallic-tasting powder from the airbag out of her windpipe.

Which sentence tells and which sentence shows?

We usually use adverbs because we’ve chosen a weak verb or because we haven’t taken the time to sit down with a thesaurus and look for a better, stronger verb. For example:

      He spoke clearly.
      becomes
      He enunciated.

This example shows how inexact adverbs can be—and how they can begin to slow down the action of the story. Have a chase scene in your story? Which would you rather use?

      He ran fast.
      or
      He galloped.

(In this case, the verb not only indicates speed but manner—you could also use sprinted or even He hit the pavement at Warp 9 and never looked back.)

In general . . . it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants [adjectives and adverbs], that give to good writing
its toughness and color.

The Elements of Style

While you can’t get rid of every single adverb in your writing (and just taking the –ly off the end of the word doesn’t stop it from being an adverb; that just gives you poor grammar), do the highlight test, just as we did with was and had two weeks ago. (Add a [space] after the ly when you do your search, and that way, it’ll find only those at the ends of words—except for those at the ends of sentences; it will highlight words like family, but those are easy enough to ignore.) And if you start seeing several on a page, like this:

it’s probably time to pull out the thesaurus and start choosing some more descriptive verbs and making your writing stronger! But before you go through and eliminate all of them . . . you also don’t want to replace your adverbial phrases with words that the reader isn’t going to know or understand. When you’re going through the thesaurus to find a stronger verb to use, don’t use one that you have to look up in the dictionary—and don’t use one that isn’t natural for your voice as a writer. Most can be replaced, but not all need to be.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 10:47 am

    Ohhhh I love these kind of instructional posts where I can see the difference. I have to admit to being a bit attached to the -ly words. Love your examples of how strong the sentence becomes after the edit.

    Like

  2. Tuesday, February 22, 2011 11:34 am

    I was just getting comfortable with a certain level of adverb use when Stephen King messed with my head. I listened to his book On Writing (narrated by the author…) So imagine my surprise when there, on my way home from work, he told me to use no more than one per chapter or one per book. Well, whatever he said frustrated me. See? I’ve put the moment right out of my head. ( I haven’t forgotten Kill Your Darlings, though.)

    I don’t cringe when I use adverbs anymore. I’ve moved on. Hurray for the well placed, yet rather limited use of adverbs! They pop up in my 19thc dialogue and I use a lot of ‘not’ as well (sneaky adverb, that ‘not’ is! Is it not?)

    Like

  3. Tuesday, February 22, 2011 11:58 am

    How I wish I had read this post before that umpteenth revision in which I found, much to my chagrin, a myriad of unnecessary adverbs, including lots of narrative- and dialogue-weakening “-ly” words, just, really, etc. I couldn’t believe, when I did get out that thesaurus, just how much stronger the writing became when those extra words were removed. What we think, on the surface, is that extra words are more descriptive and emphasize the idea, but in reality, it’s like too much syrup on your pancakes. You end up with a lot left on your plate that’s wasted. Thanks, Kaye!

    Like

    • Carla Gade permalink
      Wednesday, February 23, 2011 12:43 pm

      Great analogy, Regina!

      Like

  4. Jackie S. permalink
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 12:22 pm

    Very interesting…..I am just a reader (not a writer), but enjoyed this!!!

    Like

  5. Carla Gade permalink
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 2:03 pm

    When I finally “got” this, it was when I finally felt there was hope of getting published some day. Growing up learning how to and encouraged to use adverbs is a hard habit to break! But what a difference it makes. I do use them once in a blue moon, but it has to earn the right to be there. I do get irked when some authors feel that they can NEVER be used. Sometimes you “just” have to!

    Like

  6. Tuesday, February 22, 2011 6:09 pm

    Oh Kaye, I love you. I love hearing that it is not a hard and fast rule to Kill Your Adverbs. I like the occasional one sprinkled in. I try not to use them, but sometimes it sounds better to me.

    Like

  7. Wednesday, February 23, 2011 2:34 pm

    Kaye…(sigh of relief) you are the bestest. Okay, since I got permission from you to use that pesky adverb I often see in books written by best seller authors, I feel much better.

    Seriously speaking, I just don’t fully understand the mass murder of various items from the English lexicon.

    Like

  8. Jill W permalink
    Thursday, February 24, 2011 6:27 pm

    Thanks Kaye, priceless info!

    Like

  9. Ramona permalink
    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 1:07 pm

    Amen! Definitely tweeting this one.

    Like

  10. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Thursday, October 13, 2016 7:47 pm

    Wow! That is all I can say.

    Like other people posting, I too learned that you had to have adverbs to describe things.

    I practiced on a scene I wrote and it was stronger. A LOT stronger. 🙂

    Thank you!

    Like

    • Thursday, October 13, 2016 9:23 pm

      Yay, Seralynn! I’m so happy you found this helpful (and that you found it, as it’s been a while since it was posted). 😀

      Like

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