Don’t Get Frowned Upon

If you haven’t heard it by now, adverbs are often frowned upon. It’s true—a lot of beginning writers use adverbs excessively. And it does make your writing look cluttered and amateurish. Why? Because it is better writing to have the choice of words and the structure of a sentence imply the mood, emotion, or intent of what you are trying to get across. Rather than tell that someone is angry (“Go away,” he said angrily), show it (“Go away,” he said, slamming the door in her face).

If you really feel you need to tell an emotion and you just want that adverb, try rewriting so you change the adverb into a noun. Instead of “He slammed the door angrily,” write “He slammed the door in anger.” I would still leave out “anger” since slamming implies it. But if you are worried the reader might not get your emotional intent by the description alone, play around with the word you want to use.

Instead of: “I have to leave,” she said fearfully:

• “I have to leave,” she said, fearful of his response.

• “I have to leave.” Fear gripped her as she awaited his response.

• “I have to leave,” she said, knowing the fear was evident on her face.

Still better would be to leave fear out of it completely and just show your character afraid—hands shaking, voice tremulous, throat constricted. You don’t need to get neurotic and take every adverb out of your book, but try to find other, more creative ways to get the emotion across without the dreaded ly.

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  1. Very helpful tips.
    I’ve noticed that I am getting better at this, but still need to work on it.

    Your examples are great. Thank you.

  2. I SOOOOO agree with the advice on dropping adverbs as often as possible. If you’re a good writer, you don’t need them. I also watch for overused and filler words when I edit and try to remove those as well. Excellent advice. WRITE ON!

  3. I’m starting the revise/first edit of my novel, so I will make sure to look out for extra adverbs!
    Thanks for this reminder.

  4. Loved the article. I learned this important point in “Stephen King’s ON WRITING”. It is the most dreadful thing to read a book that tells the emotion rather than show it. I liked the second response because it removes the “she said”.

  5. Excellent article, I try to leave adverbs out, but then end up writing ‘he said’, ‘she said’ all the time, which gets boring. But you are completely correct that they do look amateurish

    She types enthusiastically… 😉

  6. As with all things, variety helps a story. Nothing wrong with adverbs every now and then when appropriate.

  7. Reluctantly, I’d have to agree that we newer writers often boorishly utilize adverbs, much to our readers chagrin. “Why doesn’t he just make his point?” I can almost hear them ask accusingly as they feverishly paw through my book. “Why do we need to dive through so many words to get a coherent sentence?” another probably wonders angrily, throwing the pages forcefully against the wall.

    But still, adverbs can be winningly employed if sparingly used. And now, after reading your thoughts, kindly and generously offered, by the way, I shall endeavor mightily to do so … someday.


  8. … and yet, I’m reading book after book, published by some of the big dog publishers in New York, that are loaded with the ly words. Why is that, I wonder? When some of us avoid them at all costs, other writers continue to sprinkle liberal doses of happily, angrily, and fearfully across their pages and still get published. Resting on laurels, maybe? I don’t know. That may be a good topic for a blog. 🙂

  9. I was given a writing exercise recently which was to write a 1,000 word story with no adverbs OR adjectives. Quite hard to do but not as impossible as you might think. The finished product was very taut, perhaps a little too taut, but it taught (oops) me how you certainly don’t need nearly as many as you think you do.

    1. I love adjectives. They are awesome, terrific, useful, important, evocative, descriptive … not sure why someone would tell you to leave out adjectives. I actually have a huge chart of all my favorite ones and when I feel I need one, I look it over.

      1. Great topic, and very timely for me.

        My editor andI have just had a friendly parting of the ways over style. She feels I’m using too many adjectives. I happen to like adjectives as I’m a very enthusiastic person and the passion comes across in my writing. It’s pretty hard to be passionate when your adjectives are restricted!

  10. Great examples.

    What’s frustrating is reading a NYT bestselling author’s book that’s filled with them. I suppose it’s always better to go for stronger writing.

  11. Great advise.

    I could also use some tips for alternatives to he said/she said when quoting people for non-fiction articles. Any suggestions??

    1. You can use narrative tags instead:
      Doris pointed to the cute cat on her lap. “Really, cats make much better companions.”

      If the paragraph you’re writing is only speaking about one person, you may not need a tag at all.

  12. Great advice and some helpful examples. I also agree with the comment about removing ‘she said’ – I am conscious when my prose is littered with he said, she said and love clever ways of avoiding it. I could cut my editing time by half if I didn’t put them in there in the first place!

  13. Very helpful advice. My schooling was many years ago. I’ve forgotten lots of the rules and advice about good writing so its great for me to get these prompts. Thank you.

  14. While the occasional use of an adverb is fine, I get annoyed by them. We run a writing contest on Novel Rocket and I see so many from newer writers. It takes hard work to write a great book without using a lot of adverbs, but then this writing gig isn’t for wimps! 🙂

  15. Thanks for all your fabulous advice.
    I think it’s all sinking in. Had a break whilst some readers give me feedback after my first edit. Feeling refreshed and inspired anew to do the reworking I need to.
    Thanks again.

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