Too many adverbs!
Too many adverbs!

This morning’s email from a friend, written in panic, and ending with “Help!” was sparked by advice from the judge of a story competition he wanted to enter. The advice was this: ‘Do not use adverbs.’

“But the second word of my story is an adverb!” he wailed, “Why can’t I use it? Why? Why?”

My breakfast sat on the table, my tummy rumbled, but a friend in need turns congealed porridge and cold tea to no account. I clattered out this advice on the keyboard:

An ‘ad-verb’ is added to a verb to condition it: make it stronger, say more, be more explicit. If you need to use an adverb; if you have to prop the verb up with a walking stick or a rod stuck down its spine, you are using the wrong verb – it is too weak to do the job you want it to do.  Stronger, appropriate verbs that say and do precisely what you want them to say and do, without face-lifts and crutches, give zest to your writing. And cutting adverbs reduces your word count.

It is an affectation to deny the use of adverbs…entirely. They do have a role to play in language, and words ending in ‘ly’ are not the only adverbs: there are hundreds of others that might surprise you – even, most, anywhere, aside, almost, far, however, how, just, much, next, once, still, so, and together, for example.

What irritates judges is adverbs scattered everywhere (another adverb, by the way) instead of taking the trouble to find the best verb, or, for dialogue, show actions that convey the emotion of the spoken words without needing speech tags to describe them.

A couple of quick examples:

Picking up the photograph of her smiling sweetly at him, he gently touched her face. “I miss her,” he said, sadly.

‘Touched’ is weak, vague, it has too many meanings; it has to grab hold of ‘gently’ for help. Re-written below, ‘caressed’ is specific and we no longer need the speech tag; his mood is evident.

Picking up the photograph, he caressed the face that smiled out at him. “I miss her.”

Alice hurriedly loaded the washing machine and turned it on abruptly. How dare he spring this on me, she thought angrily.

The re-write, without adverbs, is shorter and angrier.

Alice thrust laundry into the machine and stabbed the ‘on’ button. How dare he spring this on me.

(This should probably be ‘on her‘ because without the ‘she thought’, the point of view becomes ‘close third’, but I hadn’t time to go into POV as well).

If you want to see a full list of adverbs – which should come with a ‘depression hazard’ warning – click on this link 

And there are additional editing tips here.

I hope this was helpful. You will find more advice on grammar, syntax and writing craft that applies to fiction as well as non-fiction in, Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author – described by a reviewer as ‘Essential…for writers of all sorts.’  Anne Stormont in Words with JAM, the ezine for writers and publishers.

Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, the only global social history of storytelling, released March 2017.



How to Write Without Adverbs

3 thoughts on “How to Write Without Adverbs

  • March 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    The ‘ly’ words I can generally deal with. But the one that slips in when I’m not looking is ‘just’ – somehow that seems to have a life of its own and is determined to litter my writing like confetti!

    • March 25, 2014 at 8:45 pm

      Haha! yes, we all have words that seem to haunt us, that’s why I use the ‘Find’ function as part of editing, to search out this little horrors. [Anyone who isn’t familiar with this, see my blog post “6 Editing Tips: Find and Seek” ] But, Jo, half the battle is recognising that we do these things so that we can correct them, as you obviously do.

  • March 28, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    “we do these things so that we can correct them, as you obviously do”

    – you flatter me, Trish, but thanks anyway!!

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