Adverbs are Not Magical Words


I’m trying to feel and act professional today, but it ain’t happening. I’m halfway though writing my post and it is all over the place due to two things – the storm front that came through last night and left me with a headache and the hubby with a car full of rain water because the window was open and now the birds are thinking it might make a great place to raise chicks and are all over the inside because the doors are open to dry it out, and because StellarCon is this weekend. Crap. I am nowhere near ready! But Misty already covered that subject and I have no reason to gripe because at least I don’t have to bake cookies. So when you read this – forgive me. This is the best I can do this week. Really.

*Deep breath. Pulling façade of professional writer over me.*

Language must be fluid. To keep up with us, with our culture and our technology, language must shift and morph, meanings must change, spellings must change, sentence structure must change and all this has to happen because our world changes. I don’t always like the changes, but sadly, since no one made me queen of the world, I am not in charge of language changes. (And why not, I ask you. I am perfect {right?} and yet clearly I was not given a throne and a crown. And a scepter. I write fantasy. Gotta get me a scepter, a magical scepter. Yeah. Okay, back to the post.)

Well, maybe it isn’t sad that I was never given a crown. And maybe I’m not quite, completely, perfectly perfect. I looked back at one of my 2009 posts that dealt partly with adverbs, and, while it wasn’t exactly a rant, it came close. I was missing adverbs. Not so much now. David’s post on Monday (scroll down the home page of MW) got me thinking about them. Adverbs really are telling, not showing. (palm head) I never noted how much more telling they are than showing! Okay, so I can live with this one minor mistake on my part—you know the one thing that isn’t perfect. And I just spilled tea on my clean shirt. Two things, then.

*Deep breath. Pulling façade of professional writer over me. Again.*

So, today, I want to indulge myself in writing two vignettes, with and without adverbs, just to see how they work and don’t. Off the cuff stuff. Playing! Because, like Misty yesterday (scroll down MW home page) I am in a dither about StellarCon! Whoot! If you are coming to SCon, be sure to find us and get the directions to the party suite for the book launch party! Uh huh. We’s havin’ us a partay!

Back to the language stuff. Crap. This is hard. *Deep breath. Pulling façade of prof—… yada yada yada.* The part in David’s post that got me thinking about adverbs was actually my own reply to his post. It read, in part:

“Yes,” she said, a small smile playing over her lips. “I’ve read Thieftaker.” Her brows arched, “You mean you haven’t? Odd. I thought you all were such good friends.”

With adverbs it might read:

“Yes. I’ve read Thieftaker. You mean you haven’t?” she said slyly, “Odd. I thought you all were such good friends.”

Both work. But in the first one, you see the character’s expression, that it is subtle and not overt. It appears to have no evil connotation, while the second could be verging on malicious. One is showing, not telling. Two is telling.

“I hear gunshots, Batman,” Robin said, eyes wide and face white behind his bright mask. “Catwoman is in trouble.”


“I hear gunshots, Batman,” Robin said, his eyes open widely and his face palely white behind the brightly colored mask. “Catwoman is in trouble.”

One is clean and sharp. Two is unwieldy and slow. Adverbs and the sentence structures needed to keep them in play tend to slow pace and leave the reader guessing at the exact nature of a character’s reaction

So. I didn’t get to keep adverbs and that’s a good thing – nearly as good me not being crowned queen of the world. Though I did want that scepter. Sigh….



29 comments to Adverbs are Not Magical Words

  • Love the examples, Faith. That always makes it real and tangible. Great job. Sorry to hear so many other things have gone ka-blooey, but I’m going to take this opportunity to point out to everyone else in the reading audience how Faith got the job done despite all the hurdles and challenges and raindrops inside the car. That’s professionalism on display there, folks. Take good note.

  • Thanks Edmund. Sometimes professionalism and desperation look a lot alike. 😀

  • I pulled quite a few of the nasty -ly buggers out of my WIP. There were a lot (I kept saying that someone took an -ly adverb machine-gun to my manuscript). Pretty much found one of my major crutches, I guess. And nothing shows those issues in stark reality and makes you not want to repeat the mistake like telling your word processing program to highlight everything with an -ly. Yeah, it also found things like fly and family, but I went through and pulled the highlight off those so I could see all the actual adverbs to fix them. Funny thing though, now that I know, I’m automatically editing them out when I’m adding new things to the work and seeing each one in conversational typing, though I don’t always bother editing my online typing. 😉 And it’s also killed some of my enjoyment of reading, alas, because I keep picking them out in the novels I read now (I read a lot of novels from the ’80s and ’90s). Double edged sword…

    I think I maybe kept five or so that I couldn’t bear to part with (read: couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them) and kept those that were in dialogue, because we do use them in conversation. It just comes natural. I don’t think my next work will have them in there. Lesson learned the painful way.

  • Oh, and I owe the finding and expunging to Magical Words. If you all didn’t mention it over and over I wouldn’t have looked for them.

  • Yeah, adverbs are definitely “out” right now. But just to show you how hard it can be for some people to get rid of the pesky things, Stephen King rails against their usage in On Writing; however, his own books are rife with them. There are, of course, occasions when an adverb is the best way to go, when any other way would be cumbersome and inarticulate, but 99.99999% of the time, adverbs do little good. Thanks for this important reminder, Faith. See you in a few days.

  • Yes! Vindication!

    One of the things I was obsessive about in my WIP was *not* having adverbs. (At least, when we’re talking words that end in -ly.) Yesterday I let one or two slip in while writing a completely new passage, and the evil part of me said, “Well, what can it hurt to have just a few?” They are so getting edited away. Thanks, Faith.

  • Oh. Oh my. Well, this is embarrassing.

    Just did my own reading highlight and I did find some – but they didn’t stand out as adverbs. Maybe my coffee hasn’t kicked in yet, but what about words like “hardly”, “barely”, “only”, “fully”, and “possibly”? Do those count? That’s most of what stands out.

    I *think* the few other places where I found them was, as Stuart says, “when any other way would be cumbersome and inarticulate” (or at least seems that way), but I was surprised all the same. Gah! Well, at least I’m aware of it enough that hopefully I’ve kept it down to a minimum.

  • Your posts are always so entertaining! For a post that was done in the midst of all that craziness and done “off the cuff” it hit the mark.

    I’m always amazed at how many adverbs creep into my work. It’s fun to find ways of ditching them, and when I do I’m always happy with the result. The only adverbs that I tend to leave in are ones that modify the verb in an unusual way, or almost contradict the verb in some way–I don’t think I’m explaining it all that well.

    Great post (oh, and all the other posts over the past couple of months as well! I moved and had a ton of catching up to do!)

  • [Steps on soapbox.] I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that I like adverbs, I use adverbs, and I reject as silly any unwritten “rule” that says we are not allowed to use a certain article of speech. Now, I am not calling Faith silly. Let me make that clear. She’s right: adverbs can often be a symptom of lazy writing. They can replace effective “showing” with cumbersome “telling”. But I utterly reject the idea that we need to go through our manuscripts and jettison every word ending in “ly”. The fact is, sometimes adverbs are the most succinct and effective tool for conveying a certain mood, or the quality of a specific action. Removing them entirely from our writing repertoire is counterproductive. It would be like a carpenter saying, “You know, Phillips head screwdrivers make it too easy to hold a screw in place. Real carpenters use regular flat head screws and screwdrivers. From now on, I’m not going to use Phillips head screws anymore.” As with anything else that we do in writing, the key is not allowing the use of adverbs to become a crutch, something that we turn to in place of wording that might be contextually more effective. My books have lots of adverbs in them, and I refuse to be ashamed of that. When they keep me from being more precise and powerful with my prose, I will avoid them. But when they convey what I want them to convey, I will use them. I refuse to alter my style simply because someone, somewhere randomly decided that adverbs are “bad.” [Steps off soapbox.]

  • I’m back from lunch with mom. I got behind!

    Daniel, it *is* a shock when we see how many adverbs we use. And usually it’s lazy writing that allows them to creep in. But you are right that in dialogue they are necessary, (and somehow seem to dissapear when a character *says* them!) As to older books, yes, I’ve noticed the same thing. Our language is changing for a leaner, more spare style and word usage. And I like it! See? I really should *not* be queen of the world!

  • Stuart, I’ve noticed the same thing about King’s books, but then I’ve not read a new one, only the older ones so perhaps he’s changed? Anyway, looking forward to this weekend! Whoot!

    Laura, except in dialogue, the words >> hardly, barely, only, fully, and possibly >> *do* count. That said, some styles of writing require more of them than others, so while the usage must be judicious, I would try to pare them down/out/away.

  • Heh! To be contrary, I also agree with what David just posted. There were times where removing the word actually did more harm than good and I ended up keeping it in. There were other times where removing the word added several more, which would be detrimental to trying to drop word count.

  • Alistair, I totally agree with this >> The only adverbs that I tend to leave in are ones that modify the verb in an unusual way, or almost contradict the verb in some way. >> Yes, there are unusual ways to use adverbs that give the writing punch rather than slow it down. Very good point! If you spot one in your writing, post it in the comments here and let’s discuss it. I like!

  • David, Daniel, you are totally right, of course. Taking adverbs out when they are *necessary* is foolish.

    And while I haven’t read Daniel’s work, David, your writing is powerful, sharp, intense. And I posit that you used few adverbs in the first place. Here’s a link to Amazon, (you might have to copy adn paste) and you used one adverb (absolutely necessary) on the entire page.

    On the next page, you used three in a row, for literary effect, in one sentence. And trying to remove them would have made for clunky writing.

    That said, your writing in Theaftaker is lean and mean and you use even fewer adverbs than you once did.

  • Faith, I’m writing in first-person. Could it be argued that the “only, hardly, etc” might be a part of the character’s voice?

  • I’m embarrassed to say that I had over a thousand in my 95,000 word novel, just as a comparison, David and Faith. Ofttimes several within the space of two paragraphs. That many just weren’t necessary. 😉 Yours are style, mine were crutch.

    Funny thing, I never had a problem just reading right through them before.

  • Thanks, Faith. It may be that I feel like I use more than I do (because despite my strident defense of adverbs, I do know that the market has turned away from them, and I’m conscious of them as I write). And yes, the key, as you say, is “when they are necessary.” Again, I wasn’t taking issue with your post: adverbs do become a crutch, and when overused they make our writing weak. But I don’t think — nor were you saying — that it’s necessary for writers to go back through their manuscripts and get rid of every adverb “just because.”

  • Laura, *YES*! That would make a huge difference. I *always* write Southern fiction (always lived in the South. Go figure) so my writing tends to be like the weather — languid and sense-intense. And I’ve usee a lot of adverbs, which is another thing that got me thinking about this post . I have to fight both that slow pace and the adverbs, especially in action scenes. But I never lose the southern flavor of the writing.

    And David, it’s okay even if you were totally dissing my post! (Psssst. No crown, remember!) LOL
    But, yes, I think we were saying the same thing
    Daniel — yeah, that’s a lot. That sounds like adverbs became a crutch.

  • Lance Barron

    Faith, great post! Hope you have fun at StellarCon. What if it weren’t just birds nesting in your car?

    To me it seems that adverbs used in dialogue attribution stand out more than in the narrative. Thank all of you for helping put some perspective on using adverbs wisely.

  • I take the Magicalwords mantra to heart, “There is no one way to do things.” I will use adverbs when needed because that is what the wording demands. However, if the adverb is blocking a good description or a good “showing”, then of course, I will remove them.

  • Thanks, Faith. That makes sense. I can usually differentiate between when the character is using one of those types of words as part of her speech patterns, versus when it’s just plain sloppy description. The latter is what I’ve been avoiding. But even with that caveat, using the highlight function, I’ve noticed parts where she’s said the same thing one too many times in a given passage.

  • Lance — dragons? Bats? Golden monkeys? 🙂
    That is a good point about dialogue, (she said, nodding wisely).

    Mark: Exactly!

    Laura, that is perfect. I like!

  • Lance Barron

    Flat constrictor snakes that look *suspiciously* like seatbelts.

  • Tom G

    “Robin’s mask is black. Not bright. Not colorful,” anonymous commenter using Tom G’s password illegally said snottily.

  • I read somewhere that another bunch of words that can almost always go are:
    up, down, in and out.
    I didn’t believe it when I read it, but when I went through my own work and pulled them, it became obvious.
    He sat down on the chair out in the yard.
    He sat in the yard.
    Again, there are some cases where you need to keep them for clarity, but it is shockingly easy to keep them in without really noticing 🙂

  • Lance, while I am not afraid of snakes, I am also not fond enough of them wrap my self up in them. Misty, however, dances with one. I’ve seen it. And it’s amazing. 🙂

    Tom G’s evil twin — really? I guess I was blinded by the tights.

    Scion, you are dead on! Off. And right. 🙂

  • Late to the party as usual. Good post, Faith and great commentary, particularly Mr. Coe.

    The adverbs rule is like most of those pesky rules that are quoted in critique circles. They’re there because beginning writers would be better off following them, until they understand enough to break them.

    “Don’t use adverbs” becomes “use adverbs when necessary” in the toolbox of a skilled writer. The trick is understanding when they’re needed and when they’re not.


  • ** supressing the urge to write and adverb laden comment **

  • Now, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with the idea that adverbs are always bad all the time. It’s en vogue right now to disparage adverbs as a matter of writing advice, but it’s misplaced disparagement. I’ll concede, naturally, that adverbs can very very easily be overused, and that in many cases it would be better to omit the adverb to include something that provides a clearer image. But that’s less about the quality of the adverb and more about the quality of the image the writer is trying to evoke.

    But there are circumstances when the use of an adverb is superior to a sentance without.

    And your examples provide a very useful illustration of that. Tom G’s comment notwithstanding, referring to Robin’s “bright mask” is considerably more confusing, for instance, than his “brightly-colored mask”. There’s little context in the former – what does “bright” mean? “Brightly-colored”, meanwhile, flows off the tongue naturally, has a pleasant cadence and has a fairly specific meaning.

    It might be useful to advise writers to generally avoid over-use of adverbs – that being pretty much anything more than an occassional adverb. That would be accurate, as their over-use is ungainly in writing. But to give the advice in such a guise as to suggest never to use adverbs – I think that does a slight disservice.