The Use of Adverbs in Fiction Writing

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Adverbs are dying.  Over the barren wasteland of Adverbia, a cold sun sets over the crest of tangled, bony branches on gunmetal-gray trees, silhouettes of mountains in the distance, and long shadows stretched over cracked, curling pads of parched clay.

Why?  Why are adverbs relegated to the path of the dinosaur in fiction writing?  What's so doggone wrong with adverbs, anyway??

Well, there's a few simple reasons for it -- and maybe there are a lot of reasons for it, but I've identified a few simple ones.

The goal here, of course, isn't to make you feel foolish or inadequate if you're one of those adverb-happy writers, but to demonstrate a better way for you to improve your writing.  For those of you still in school below the University level, think about this: you can blow your English or creative writing teachers out of the water with this information, and won't you be the envy of the rest of your adverb-reliant classmates?

I know, I know, I'm not getting to the point.  And that opening is a little vague.  Bear with me, though, and I'll do my best to show you why adverbs are evil and how you can be a superhero of writing by getting away from them.

(Translation: Adverbs are for amateurs, and you want to be a pro, right?  So follow along and become a better writer.  I sure did.)

So, what's an adverb in this context, and what do we do with them?  How do we know them to avoid them?

Let's start with some general definitions.  Nothing hyper-specific, just painting in broad strokes so we're all on the same page when the word "adverb" keeps popping into view.

Definition



An adverb is:

An adverb is a part of speech. It is any word that modifies any other part of language: verbs, adjectives (including numbers), clauses, sentences and other adverbs, except for nouns; modifiers of nouns are primarily determiners and adjectives.
-Wikipedia.org


  • the word class that qualifies verbs or clauses
  • a word that modifies something other than a noun

-wordnet.princeton.edu


a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.
-Merriam-Webster Online


I could go on and on here, but let's sum up:

An adverb is a word used to modify anything other than a noun (person, place or thing).  And, to be more specific, it's a word used to modify (or strengthen) a verb ... dun-dun-duuuuuunnnn!

(Notice the scary, "oh noes!" musical insertion?  There's a reason for it.  Read on.)

Before we get too deep into the topic, I'd like to point out that adjectives, when overdone in a similar fashion, are just as prone to distaste as adverbs.  But I haven't learned adjectives yet, so you get adverbs.  When I grow up and get older you can have adjectives.  Or you have to go get them yourself.

Once more:
An adverb, for the purpose of this article, is a word modifying anything except a noun -- verbs, adjectives, clauses, etc. -- and end with "ly" for the most part.

In this particular context, we're talking about a specific type of adverb -- those which end in "ly".  And, of course, we should say up front that dialog is an exception to the rule.  You want your dialog to read the way people speak, so write that way.  And, this article excludes adverbials/adverbial phrases as a natural consequence.  Okay?

Once more, we're targeting those adverbs ending in "ly" here.

With that out of the way, let's move on to why they're evil.

The Evil of Adverbs



I've had a lot of folks tell me they don't understand my complete and utter hatred of "ly" words ... Adverbs.  Some don't understand how an "anathema" came upon these poor, innocent li'l words, and some think I'm just off my rocker to be so blast-happy where they're concerned.  It's a fair question, and it wasn't long ago at all that I was as dependent on adverbs in my writing as an infant on its mother.  I bloated my word count with endless strings of them, hammered into place one after another like train cars.

But, dear friends, there IS an anathema on adverbs, and I didn't proclaim it.  There's at least one great reason for it.

It's an indication of weak writing.

I know ... how can this be, when Mrs. Swingingjowls taught you to use them when you were in elementary school??  I mean, Mrs. Swingingjowls, yo!  She wouldn't steer you wrong!  She's the one that set you on the path to being a writer anyway, and told you how much talent you have, and all that.  What're you saying -- that Mrs. Swingingjowls was wrong??

Well ... yeah.

See, Mrs. Swingingjowls taught you adverbs, then emphasized their use as modifiers to help your sentences become more descriptive, more visual to the reader.  I mean, what's better, "She walked down the alley" or "She nervously walked quickly down the alley"?  Let's face it, the one states a fact, the other describes a mood.

Or does it?

Mrs. Swingingjowls enjoyed reading how Spot chased the ball quickly and playfully in the yard because the alternative was Spot chased the ball in the yard, which is boring, and she was required to teach you the part of speech and how it works.  But she wasn't teaching you adult fiction writing, and how to strengthen your prose for the rigors of the publishing industry, or even how to make your descriptions better.  She just taught you to make your existing sentences descriptive.

You should know now, however -- Mrs. Swingingjowls expected you to continue your growth beyond her elementary instruction in parts of speech.  Spot running quickly and playfully in the yard was great in her class, but if you're still doing that sort of writing, Mrs. Swingingjowls would be disappointed in you.

Adverbs Modify Verbs

The real question to ask isn't whether Mrs. Swingingjowls was right or wrong in teaching you to modify your sentences with adverbs.  The question is, why are you modifying your verbs with adverbs?

This is an easy one to answer, when you think about it:

Because your verbs are weak.

Mark Twain once said, "Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer."  Amen, Mark.

See, what's going on is, you're using a word that doesn't really convey the sense, the feeling, the mood or whatever, you're hoping to get across to your reader.  "Walk" isn't a very exciting word, and it doesn't get across the antsy feeling you're trying to portray in your description, so you make it "walk quickly" or "quickly walked".  You want your reader to see the force, the power in your characters' argument, so instead of saying "they shouted across the table" you say "they shouted angrily and vehemently across the table."

The problem is, the verbs you've chosen aren't doing the job you wanted them to do in the first place.  You don't want your character to walk, you want your character to hasten, hurry, quick-step.  You don't want your characters shouting, you want them spitting words through clenched teeth, veins throbbing on reddened necks, molars locked and spittle misting between them.

The reason you're reaching for adverbs to tell the story is because the verbs you've chosen are too weak to do it for you.  The adverb isn't the solution, however.  Strengthening your writing is.

Think about this: If the verbs you're using to describe the action in your story are weak and flimsy, the action description may be weak and flimsy too.

You wouldn't be writing something with the intent of being flimsy or weak, would you?  The reason you're grabbing adverbs in the first place is because of discontent with what's being said without them, right?

Why bother with modifiers for words that aren't cutting it in the first place?  The real crux of the problem is finding the right actions and descriptions for those actions, so that modifiers -- adverbs AND adjectives -- will be needed with rare and prudent infrequency.

When you're writing adult fiction, the need to limit -- if not eliminate -- adverbs altogether becomes pretty obvious.  What adult wants to read a grade school type of book?

No, adults want to be pulled into the story, and be engaged by it.  The use of adverbs won't get the job done, and loses the reader early on.

Show, Don't Tell -- Adverbs are NOT Good Description

With the evil adverb dragging your writing down, it's now safe to say that using adverbs isn't a way to make a lousy description good.  It's a lazy way to make a weak description obvious.

What adverbs do, in a nutshell, is tell the reader what's going on in the story.  That's NOT what you want to do.

"But -- I thought I was TELLING a story here?"

No.  You're not.  If you're a serious writer, you're not "telling" a story, you're SHOWING a story.

Don't be lazy.  Be specific.  Use specific nouns and verbs to do the bulk of the work in your writing.  By letting good, descriptive words do the heavy lifting, the occasional adjective and adverb aren't the problematic, amateur-flagging beacons common in weak writing.  And, by finding better ways to say the things you want to say, you will go from writer, grade-school level, to UBER-writer.  If you're still IN school, imagine the stunned look of awe your next creative writing assignment will get when you turn it in with no adverbs and only super-strong, descriptive nouns and verbs punching the reader right in the mouth.  Instant "A", kids.

How to Fix Your Writing



We've already talked about things you can do to help -- using specific nouns and verbs to say the things you'd say with adverbs otherwise.  But there's more to it than that.

Tricks and Tips

As writers, we have to keep the "Show, Don't Tell" model in mind.  We are challenged to expand our vocabulary so our writing doesn't run into the limitations placed on us, and become replete with adverbs and adjectives that tag us as hacks or amateurs, or amateur hacks.  A written piece is called a "work" because there's no room for being lazy.  Try and find specific examples in your own writing when you used an adverb, and figure out why.  Which word isn't doing the job you wanted?

To help you in this, here's a trick you can use:

Google It!  Open your web browser to Google.  Type in the word "define", a colon, and then the phrase or word you're having trouble with.  For example, to find out what "ichthyologist" means, you'd type:

define:ichthyologist

Note there is NO space between the colon and the word to define.

Google will search the web and return references for that word from every site it can find.  If there are no results, it's a pretty good bet you either misspelled the word, or it isn't a real word (like "irregardless").

Do this for the adverbs you've used, or the verb-adverb combination phrases.  "Walked quickly"?  How 'bout "darted"?  "Pushing lightly?"  How 'bout "pressed" or "caressed" or "traced"?

You can do it.  Google will help.

Back to School for Vocabulary!  Another thing you can do is just expand your vocabulary a bit.  Read.  Read things you love, but read with an eye toward the way it's written.  What do you like, dislike, how did the author mete out their adverbs and adjectives?  Some authors say don't use them at ALL if you can; others are pretty liberal with them.  As a matter of practice, though, you should be prudent with them and make them rare in your writing.

Rather than fall back on them, work to make your writing the descriptive sort of work adult fiction expects and adores.

How do you do this?  Ah, that's a great question, but some answers are reading, crossword puzzles, reading, word find puzzles, reading, playing games like Scrabble or Text Twist, reading, those handy Reader's Digest Word Power things, reading ... did I mention reading?  Yeah, reading is good.

Use Any Tool You Can Find!  Another tool you can use to help is WordWeb.  It's a free program you can download and install on your computer, or even to a USB thumb-drive.  It's an extensive dictionary of words and related words, shows a list of synonyms and sometimes antonyms, and provides a couple of reference definitions when more than one exists.  But it's greatest asset to the writer is its ability to go out to the web and search for more information.  Sites like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, etc. are available to the program, and it even integrates with some word processing programs to act as their spellcheck utility.

Here's a download link for WordWeb: wordweb.info/free/ (Windows only; sorry, Mac users, you're on your own.)

Seek and Destroy ... aka, Find and Replace.  And, a big one:  When you finish writing your chapter, piece, novel, short story, whatever, it's time to make your word processor pay for itself.  Go to the Find and Replace feature, and type in "ly " (that is, the letter "L", the letter "Y", and a space; no quotes, of course).  Don't be surprised to find more of them than you expected, and don't be lazy about getting rid of them either.  Destroy those buggers before they destroy you.

So, I can NEVER Use Adverbs Again??



Well, as tempting as it is to say "That's right! You're forbidden from using adverbs ever again in your LIFE!!", I really can't do that.  I have to admit that, used sparingly (see?? see????), adverbs and adjectives have their place.  They can enhance and help.  But they really should be rare.  Don't shoot for one or two each chapter, see if you can get that to one or two each book.

Try to exercise your writer muscles and find better verbs and nouns to say what you want to say.  Use Google, use WordWeb, use other people you know who write as resources for new words for old clichés or adverbs and adjectives.  Be judicious about what you TELL the reader and make sure you spend most of your time and words SHOWING the reader.

A reader who's shown the story and not told it is more engaged, and happier, at the end of the book.

Good luck, and zap them adverbs!

See ya next time.

-JDT-
© 2008 - 2022 DarcKnyt
Comments138
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Thank you!   You have no idea what you have done for my work. 
DarcKnyt's avatar
I'm glad it helped. :)
AtlasArtifex's avatar
People get so pissy if I ever try to tell them this. I always try to get rid of as many adverbs as possible, and in the process, describe things better. Thanks for the article!
DarcKnyt's avatar
Thank YOU for the feedback. Read through the comments on this article sometime. Folk here seem pretty defensive about it too. :)
AtlasArtifex's avatar
I know it's ridiculous...it's one of TN email simplest things to do.
BATTLEFAIRIES's avatar
See this now I find entertaining writing. And O so useful for the likes of me!
Personally I use Rhymezone a lot to find related words, words my placeholder word appears in the definition of, examples of use and stuff like that. It's just a site so not for offline working, but it gets the job done for those poor Mac users, I imagine.

Mind if I feature this journal in one of my own, real quick-like? As a tip for my fellow authors (and the implied message to my readers that I'm working on those copious adverbs in my own writing)...
DarcKnyt's avatar
I'm glad to know you found it useful. If you'd like to feature it, please feel free to do so. And thank you for the feedback and positive thoughts. :)
Ventisquear's avatar

Even if you use them sparingly, you can still end with weak writing.

Frequency has (almost) nothing do do with it. It's the reason why you used them and the way you used them that matter - that is, if you use them knowingly and deliberately.

Frequency is only problem when you use them in every second sentence. It happens when authors use them unwittingly. ;)

As said above, adverbs are words that modify other words. Not only those that end with -LY.  Soon is an adverb. Never is an adverb. Very is an adverb. A phrase used to describe an action Is. An. Adverb. Are you sure you want to get rid of them all? 

And one more thing: NO, writers are NOT storyshowers. Writing can never really 'show' a story. We have other media for that. Trying to show a story and eliminate telling, will result in the weakest and most pathetic form of writing: voiceless, ridiculous pantomime trying to 'show' something that's in the author's head. Wise writers use BOTH telling and showing, to get the most of their medium and tools it offers. 

Thank you! I had been taught in the past to avoid adverbs, but I never fully understood it until I read this. Now I feel I can really go in and revise my writing.
DarcKnyt's avatar
You're so very welcome. And, as with anything, it's easy to go too far in the other direction too. Balance is key.

Best of luck with your work and revision!
Ryker97's avatar
This satisfies my inner grammar demon.
DarcKnyt's avatar
Well, I'm glad to hear that. :) Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
You're so funny! Stephen King doesn't like them either. There continues to be NY Times Bestsellers that contain plenty of them. I didn't know why they were shunned. Thank you for letting us know!
- An old beginner
DarcKnyt's avatar
The pleasure is mine. Welcome!
dayhikerBigX's avatar
"If you're a serious writer, you're not "telling" a story, you're SHOWING a story."

While I acknowledge the value of the showing technique, I balk at your inference that one must use it exclusively to claim to be a "serious" writer. There are plenty of "serious", successful writers who cite what rubbish this bad advice for nubile writers really is.

Novelist Francine Prose wrote: "[The Alice Munro passage] contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers—namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine 'dramatic' showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language". [link]

John Rechy wrote: "[one of] the most often repeated 'rules of writing,' recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop and English class are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing [is]

Show, don't tell.

Nonsense. Good writing involves 'showing'--that is, dramatizing--as well as 'telling' -employing exposition. An avoidance of 'telling' may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by 'showing'). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation." [link]
DarcKnyt's avatar
While I acknowledge the value of your demonstrations to prove your point using links to two writers who disagree with the adage, I balk at acceptance of of anyone who states I made an "inference" to use the method of dramatic demonstration exclusively in this piece.

Rather, this was written -- and four years ago, by the way, in case you'd not noticed -- as a way to help beginning writers struggling with making their prose more dynamic. It was done at the request of someone who was an active and involved leader of the literary community on deviantART at the time, who has since passed away. And this piece never made inference to use of any technique exclusively, including the removal of adverbs from prose.

In seriousness, though, I hope you find something more suited to your skill levels elsewhere, and have a great weekend.
DieWildnis's avatar
This...is brilliant. I'll be directly a lot of my writers here when they're having issues with adverbs. Thank you so much for writing this.
DarcKnyt's avatar
You're more than welcome. Thank YOU for your kind words. It's nice to know you enjoyed it. :)
Riku29's avatar
You should think about learning your adjectives asap: you used NINE in your second sentence! Also, the form of your sentence - "The long sun sets over... long shadows stretched over... parched clay" - is clunky at best. (Okay, that's the cheap shots out of the way.)

I think that, given that you find it necessary to use at least one adverb - 'sparingly' - in a short, factual article, advising people to restrict their number of adverbs to one or two per novel is silly, not to say a tad hypocritical. Could you write a novel with only one or two adverbs? Could anyone? Surely one or two per chapter is fine as long as they're necessary.

Here is another helpful article on adverb usage: [link] It basically agrees with you but it is less militant and more realistic about when it is okay to use them.
Lupina24's avatar
Adverbs are literary dandelions in the lawn/garden of good writing.
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