Monday, May 6, 2013

Writing Tips – Adverbs

Adverbs. People have a love/hate relationship with them, especially when it comes to writing fiction. There are the camps where nary an adverb can be found while in another camp, adverbs flock like sheep. So, which is it for you? To adverb or not to adverb?

To get it straight: Adverbs are words that modify. It is understood that there are five kinds of adverbs.

1.    Adverbs of Manner
She moved quickly and spoke softly.

2.    Adverbs of Place
She has lived in the country all her life.

3.    Adverbs of Frequency
She takes a tractor to the backfields every day.
She often goes with her father.

4.    Adverbs of Time
She attempts to get back before dark.
It’s starting to get dark now.
She finished clearing the last field first.
She left early.

5.    Adverbs of Purpose
She drives her tractor slowly to avoid hitting tender plants.
When in town, she shops in several stores to get the best buys.

For the sake of this article, we will discuss using adverbs in fiction writing.  If this were a true grammar lesson, we’d discuss adverb clauses, adverbial phrases, infinitive phrases acting as adverbs, and so much more. But, I’m not going to give you a grammar lesson on adverbs. We are going to have a discussion of their legitimate use in fiction writing.

One more tip. Most adverbs end in –ly. In fact, most adverbs are formed by adding –ly to adjectives.

For example: drowsy (an adjective) + -ly = drowsily (an adverb)

As for how other writers view the use of adverbs, the most famous criticizer of adverbs is Stephen King: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late.
”(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000)

“In order to write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.”
(Theodore Roethke, quoted in The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, by Allan Seager. McGraw-Hill, 1968)

You can read more about Why the Adverb is Not Our Friend by Richard Nordquist.

If you’d like further explanation of the use of adverbs and How to use Adverbs Correctly check out this article and discussion by Tanya.

I think everyone will agree, that if you use the adverb correctly and appropriately, it’s less likely to get kicked to the curb during an edit.

For more information, read How to Use Adverbs and How to Use Adverbs Correctly.

An article in a 1996 Writer’s Digest magazine suggested that once you complete your first draft use the “Edit – Find” feature of your word processor to search for “ly” words. Once you find these words, rewrite the sentence. You’ll find your writing stronger, tighter, more powerful and easier to read.

Karin Schroeder said, “In my early twenties, I began a love affair I still struggle with to this day to put behind me. My partners in crime? Adverbs and adjectives. These culprits lulled me into believing they actually strengthened my writing. Was I in for a rude awakening.
That day came when a critique partner pointed out that I used purple prose. Being a beginning writer, I had no idea what she was talking about. But I soon learned as I began to sneak how-to-write books home.
Weak verb/adverb example:
       Frowning angrily, she moved hurriedly towards him, saying very harshly, "You bastard."
Example rewritten:
       Scowling, she stalked towards him. "You bastard."
See the stronger verbs that replaced the weaker verb/adverb combinations?”
As Rogenna W. Brewer said, “--ly adverbs distract from the action. Eliminate the need for them with action verbs. Instead of: "She went quickly…" try: "She hurried…" or "She bolted…". An action verb creates a picture for the reader. The right action verb creates an exact picture. "Hurried" and "bolted" both imply quickness, but each creates its own mental image.”
On Writing Well, 5th Edition - William Zinsser
“Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly - "blare" connotes loudness. Don't write that someone clenched his teeth tightly - there's no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.
So are adjectives and other parts of speech: "effortlessly easy," slightly Spartan," "totally flabbergasted." The beauty of "flabbergasted" is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can't picture someone being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use "effortless." And what is "slightly Spartan"? Perhaps a monk's cell with wall-to-wall carpeting? Don't use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped sadly and the winner grinned widely.”
For more information go to Those “ly” Ending Adverbs.
I stumbled across a blog about writing fiction by Matt Moore. He defends the use of the adverb and does it quite well.
He writes, “But this does not mean you have to excise an element of grammar. Eliminating adverbs is like eliminating gerunds, adjectives or any grammatical form. That is, there’s a difference between taking issue with weak phrasing that uses adverbs, and eliminating all adverbs just because you think it’s a “rule”.”
Matt goes on to say, “While adverbs can distance the reader, they can also have a powerful effect. In a story I just finished, “That Which Does Not Kill You”, I wrote:
It was how she examined and selected the limbs that freaked Teller out. Gently, delicately. Almost lovingly.
By using dry, clinical words like “examined” and “selected” and then contrasting them with three “ly” adverbs, I want to throw the reader off balance.
So, go ahead and use adverbs as long as, like every other word in your story, they add something. But if you rely on them to make up for shortcomings, that’s when there’s a problem. But the problem is not the adverb itself. It’s more complicated than some rule.”
If you’d like to read the rest of the blog, go to The “Avoid Adverbs” Rule is (Very) Wrong.
So, there you have it, the pros and cons of using adverbs while writing fiction. There are good arguments on both sides. I think in the case of most fiction writing rules, you use your best judgment and if you’re going to break a rule, do so with gusto!

For more information about using adverbs:

I hope you got something useful out of this blog about adverbs. 


  1. Thanks for posting my side of the no-adverbs "rule" and am glad you found value in my blog post!

  2. Thanks for these tips! So helpful.

  3. I love writing tips! As a writer, I'm always second guessing myself on the rules. lol

  4. Matt Moore, you're so welcome. Glad I could share your work. Victory, glad you enjoyed the tips. Tess, I second guess myself as well, and I have tons of books to keep me updated with the rules.


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