Friday, June 19, 2009

Adverbs Revisited

Here at the Blood Red Pencil we have discussed the use of adverbs already, but this is a subject well worth another reminder.

First let me say emphatically that ADVERBS WEAKEN WRITING. Case in point is my use of an adverb here. My statement was very emphatic and I didn't need to point that out with the adverb. Any time we do that when it is not necessary is an insult to the reader. It's like were telling him or her that they aren't smart enough to figure out the subtle nuances of behavior or dialogue without a not so subtle hint.

For example, consider these few lines of dialogue from book I recently received to review:

"Hi Jesse," Evie waved back excitedly. --- How does one wave excitedly? Wouldn't it be better to show the excitement?

"My dad has to go," Jesse said sharply. --- This was in response to another character inviting Evie to visit later and meet Jesse's father. The terseness of Jesse's comment has the sharp edge and doesn't need the adverb.

"We know where we're going," Theresa said adamantly. --- Here again the dialogue is already adamant. She is responding to Jesse's father who said the young people couldn't leave without him.

And again later in the same scene....

"Then we'll take a bus," Jesse said defiantly. --- This is a contrary response to the previous line of dialogue and the defiance is clear in the words.

These are just a few examples out of a book that was overrun with adverbs. Not that adverbs are bad. Just the overuse of of them. There are times when we will want characters to speak softly, or touch someone gently, but we shouldn't qualify every line of dialogue and every action.


Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for and ForeWord Magazine. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. "Amen to THIS tutorial," The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog said enthusiastically!

  2. I've been trying to do the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but adverbs are such an easy crutch to fall back on, and when I don't use them I end up with characters doing gymnastics with their face in an attempt to convey emotion. If I'm understanding correctly, you're saying use the context of the scene to establish the characters mood, and stop trying to beat the reader over the head with it.

    Good article!

  3. Good post and good point from Anton.

  4. Anton has a point, but it doesn't always have to be context. Like this:

    "Hi Jesse!" Evie waved back. (The exclamation mark implies excitement without added words).

    "We know where we're going," Theresa said. (The italics here imply a lot of the context by themselves, again without words).

    It's not always possible with simple things like this, and (just like adverbs or anything) exclamation marks and italics should be used sparingly, but it's another way of looking at it.

  5. I clear out these little rascals with the final revisions. I am always appalled at just how many I've used in the early drafts.

    One word that I use "find" for - dozens of them to be deleted - is "really". I really like that word.

  6. I love the comment about weeding out the adverbs in later drafts. I don't want anything to slow me down when I'm hot and sweaty in the act of writing, so tossing in the adverbs sometimes gets me through parts that might otherwise cause me to stop and spend too much time pondering.

  7. Thanks for the feedback, folks. One nice thing about this blog and the followers is that we get more insight in these discussions.

    I agree with Gay about weeding out the adverbs in the revisions. That's when I do it in my own work.

  8. Hi, Maryann!

    I totally agree with this, to a point. I think that if I were to have written this, I might have clarified it a little further by saying:

    "Adverbs give us the biggest problem when we are describing 'action' and 'dialogue' in fiction."

    Adverbs, just like adjectives, are modifiers, but instead of describing nouns, they describe adjectives, verbs and other adverbs. The easiest way to identify one is that it usually answers a question of when, where or how and very often ends with 'ly'.

    To show you what I meant by problem, look at these sentences:

    "I think you could sew that yourself," she said rudely.

    She angrily closed the door.

    Now take a look at the sentences that I have edited:

    "Sew it yourself," she said.

    She slammed the door.

    There will be times when an adverb will add a nice touch to a sentence, but try to limit the use of them as much as you can. Here are some examples of the proper use of adverbs:

    Her date arrived early. (early modifies arrived)

    The brightly colored dress was very becoming on her. (brightly modifies colored)

    He walked quite hastily to the exit, bringing suspicion upon himself. (quite modifies the other adverb, hastily)

    And like "Fran" indicated: a perfect time for clearing out these little rascals is during the final revision. (paraphrased)
    Plus, I love the word 'really', as well.

    I hope you don't mind that I added these few examples, because I was just getting ready to do a post on adverbs on my own blog, Cynde's Got The Write Stuff. Now I think I'll postpone it until later.

    It's always nice to "see" you, Maryann.

    Cynde's Got The Write Stuff

  9. Fran - I really really love your suggestion.

    Am I crazy, or was Cynde just extremely (I almost typed "really")(actually, I DID type "really", but I edited it. This blog must be working.) rude?

  10. I'm in the steady-on-the-adverbs camp. I'm often curious about some of the more popular fiction as it's not unusual to find it brimming with adverbs. When I've asked people reading that stuff about the adverbs they just look at me blank. They don't even see them. They just see the story. For a lot of readers out there it isn't an issue. I guess it depends on your audience.

  11. Thanks for the suggestions Cynde. Giving examples of when adverbs are called for was a nice touch. I should have thought of it. And there is no reason why you shouldn't post what you wrote on your blog.

  12. I agree that adverbs are overused, however I like them. Not in every circumstance, but I find they do add something to a story. There are too many ways for a character to say the same group of words, to add a modifier such as sharply, or adamantly, tells us more about the individual and their emotional response to the circumstance. Of course, when every sound, action and word needs a modifier, it can get very frustrating. Couldn't it be said to use adverbs in moderation, like most other things.

  13. Cassandra, the use of adverbs in moderation is certainly acceptable. We see it all the time in books and as one person noted, a lot of readers overlook them.

    I'm a stickler for not using them except in rare cases because I have had so many creative writing instructors challenge me not to rely on the adverb to tell the reader how a character is reacting or feeling.

    Check back tomorrow and see what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject.

  14. Another cracker.
    Thanks, Maryann :)


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