Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs!

A little bit of business before the post:

  • I’ll be guest posting on Anne R. Allen’s blog this Sunday, so tune in for how to conquer your fears of doing a pitch session (or at least not sabotage yourself).
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Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs

I used to subscribe to all the writing magazines and “No adverbs” was on every top ten list.  The articles always made it sound like you could zip through your manuscript, searching for words that end in “ly,” zap them, and publication happens.

The truth is something entirely different…

What it Actually Means

First up, if you need a refresher of what an adverb is (and an adjective), head on over to the Owl at Perdue.

If you look for definitions like this, always start with original sources like college sites.  There are a lot of writers who try to define terms without truly understanding what exactly they’re defining (passive voice is an example of that).

The rule itself exists because some writers veer into adverb abuse.  Especially in the beginning of learning how to write, it’s hard figuring how to convey that a character is angry.  That’s the most common example, but you can pick your flavor.

So a story ends up with something like this:

He slammed the door angrily.  “How are we supposed to do this?”

She scowled bitterly.  “What am I supposed to do about it?  It’s your fault.”

“My fault?  If you hadn’t—” He furiously grabbed the magazines off the table and threw them across the room.

By the way, that hurt.  The writing was horrible!

In fact, I think once it’s pointed out, it becomes obvious how bad it is.  So the writers veer from too many to none at all.

Busting the Rule

Our tendency with rules is to isolate an item like “no adverbs” and follow it.  But everything in writing fiction connects to something else.  This rule connects to all of the following:

  • Characterization
  • Description
  • Dialogue

It also picks up the following rules:

What makes it so complicated? It’s just a bunch of words that end in “ly.”

Okay, let’s your character is angry.  How do you show that if you’re keeping description to a minimum?

With adverbs!

But if you eliminate all the adverbs, we circle back around to the original question: How do you show the character is angry?

Both the description, which is a chunk of characterization, and adverbs work hand in hand to build what you’re trying to show.  Zero tolerance is like leaving the salt entirely out of the food and have no flavor at all.

What you can do

  1. Identify if you’re overusing adverbs

    Run a search and replace for ly and add a space after it.  Replace it with a bolded or highlighted version.  If each page lights up like a Christmas tree, then it’s time to figure out why you put them in there in the first place.  But don’t panic if you see a lot of them.  Just refer to the next two steps.

  2. Work on finding adverbs that you can replace with stronger words. 

    This is just a skill that takes a bit of practice.  It’s unfortunately too easy to put in two words describing something when one would be more powerful:

    Original: He ran swiftly.
    Try: He bolted.

    This is NOT about economy of words.  It’s about what words will best convey the image you’re shooting for.

  3. Practice your description skills.

    We all are told to keep description to a minimum because it’s boring.  But it’s only boring if you write it that way.  More tips on writing description are on Rule Five.

Adverbs are an important part of writing.  Use them as a tool.  Your story will love you for it.

One thought on “Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs!

  1. Pagadan September 10, 2019 / 3:10 pm

    I love adverbs, but like a number of things that I love–such as parentheses and ellipses–I have to edit them.


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