Very Adverbly

Good friend Kate Maruyama (of fame) suggested I post a little something about adverbs. Quickly, I magnificently decided that the idea was fortuitously wrought and could be adeptly included as a post, and, if done right, would beneficially help writers.

See what I did there? Lots of adverbs. Did you catch them? Of course you did.

While I’ve heard several takes on adverbs, they can be boiled down to one thing: avoid them when possible. Some say never to use them—ever. Others say to use them in moderation. Still others decisively assert that you should deftly use adverbs as much as you like.

I tend to fall more on the conservative side of the issue. In fact, in my classes, we have a motto: “LY must die!” This stays on my board year-round, in big, bold marker.

Extreme? Perhaps. But it gets the point across. But why so harsh? What did adverbs ever do to me? Well, for one, they lessened the strength and quality of my writing.

For the most part, adverbs are an indication that the verb you’ve selected is not strong enough. Why say in two words (or three, as often is the case) what can be said in one. “He ran very quickly,” can become, “He sprinted.”

In the worst examples, adverbs become distracting, especially (see, sometimes they are necessary) when used in dialog tags. This is a trait of beginning writers. Consider the difference between these two examples.

Adverbly: “Get down!” John exclaimed wildly, madly flapping his arms rapidly.

Conservatively: John shouted, “Get down!” He flapped his arms like a pigeon.

The elimination of the adverbs forced me to be more precise. It even produced a simile. The overuse of LY in the first example calls too much attention to itself, and the reader ends up missing the exact thing the writer is trying to emphasize.

Bottom line: Adverbs reek of amateur. As professional writers, we are professional word assassins—kill what harms the whole. This is the basics of editing, and editing begins with adverbs.

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4 thoughts on “Very Adverbly”

  • “Professional word assassins”? I like that. Too many beginning writers think the key is to say what you want to with a lot of long, pretty, descriptive words.
    Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying you shouldn’t describe your characters, setting, and actions. You should be doing that. But don’t let those blasted adverbs be your crutch, people. If you want to express something with a stronger verb, then pull out that handy ol’ thesaurus. Find the right word. After all, Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is. . . the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug.”
    You want your writing to speak to your audience? You want it to make them feel your characters’ emotions and see the scenes they see? Excellent. Keep that mindset. Now, look for the adverbs in your writing. Kill them. Leave no survivors.
    But don’t get carried away, now. That thesaurus sitting on the desk, or on your monitor? Respect it. Don’t go to it every single time you need a different word. Sometimes the most powerful ones are the simple words.
    Write well, write often.

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