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Axe Those Adverbs

By Shaunna Privratsky


Adverbs have a bad reputation. Writers are advised to avoid them at all costs. A manuscript peppered with adverbs immediately indicates to the editor that she’s working with an amateur.

What makes adverbs so repellent? They modify verbs in a sentence and clarify the action. Yet, using an abundance of adverbs in prose is committing the writer’s worst sin: telling, not showing.

Look at this sentence: "'What’s wrong with that?' the writer asked confusedly, while scratching his head." The adverb is redundant because the phrase "scratching his head" shows the writer is confused.

A telltale sign of an adverb is any word with a -ly ending. "Meticulously, she folded the sheet." Here the adverb comes before the verb, yet it is easily identified. No matter where the adverb is placed, it almost always modifies the verb. Nine times out of ten it is pointless-- the action will be evident from the context. "She ran swiftly through the forest." Of course she is running swiftly; if you run slowly you’re trotting or jogging.

"'Where am I?' he asked groggily, looking around blearily in confusion." Both of the adverbs are superfluous. Better: "'Where am I?' he asked, looking around in confusion."

A precise verb doesn’t need any clarification. "The parrot called angrily and beat his wings harshly against his cage." The sentence is more understandable if you choose better verbs and delete the adverbs. "The parrot squawked and whipped his wings against his cage."

Using adverbs in dialogue is taboo. Example: "'I want you to pick up the dry cleaning,' he said dully. 'No! I won’t go!' she replied furiously." Both sentences are telling the reader how to interpret the dialogue. Before too long the reader will lose interest because she isn’t involved. The dialogue should be clear enough for the reader to infer the tone, as well as giving her credit for filling in the blanks. Employing a simple "he said, she said" will strengthen the dialogue and bring it alive for the reader.

Think of the adverb as a vampire sucking the life from the verb, leaving lackluster scraps of dead letters.

Is there a place for adverbs? Certainly. Sometimes a sentence benefits from a well-placed adverb. "The tears ran unchecked down her cheek." The adverb "unchecked" shows in a single word that she doesn’t try to stop her tears from falling. "The baby whimpered sporadically, as if more bored than distressed." "Sporadically" is an acceptable adverb because it clarifies the baby’s cries.

Stephen King gives this advice in his book On Writing: "Spend adverbs sparingly, like they were $100 bills."

An additional time you should use adverbs is when the action goes against the dialogue. For instance, “‘I hate you,’ she said sweetly.” Or “‘I know you’ll make it,’ he said hopelessly.” Both sentences should be backed up by actions to show why the characters’ tone is opposite what they are saying.

Adverbs don’t have to be the kiss of death. Actually, they can enrich your writing and transform it into a publishable manuscript. Choose prudently, axe unessential adverbs, and with a bit of luck you will sell your next submission.


Learn 1,000s of more writing tips in Shaunna Privratsky’s book, Pump Up Your Prose.  She has authored over 300 articles in The Writer, Writer’s Digest Online, Writer’s Weekly, and Absolute Write, among others.  FREE sign up to The Writer Within Newsletter at http://shaunna67.tripod.com.



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