Monday, January 20, 2014

Why should I not use adverbs?


by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Almost every writer uses too many adverbs in their early manuscripts. Adverbs are not evil, nor should you set out to remove all -ly words from your manuscript. What adverbs tend to be, however, is a cover-up for a weak verb choice. A specific, strong verb will always beat the verb + adverb combo:

She walked quickly down the hall.
versus
She raced down the hall.

He moved gracefully across the dance floor.
versus
He glided across the dance floor.

I whispered quietly to my sister.
versus
I whispered to my sister.

In these situations, the adverb isn't the best choice. (In the third, it's redundant.) 

For the fiction writer, however, I think there needs to be wiggle room for characters and their voices, as well as your own personal style. So if you have a character who wants to describe a fella as "dashingly handsome," then I say go for it. In that situation, the adverb is actually modifying the adjective. (Insert me mentally checking out of my own blog post. Now we're getting too technical.) But if you describe the man as walking dashingly into the room, I would consider having him stride or stroll instead.

Another type of word writers tend to overuse is qualifiers. Words like rather, little, a bit, very. Even quite can be used in such a way. (He's quite handsome.)


I'm a little tired.
versus
I'm drowsy.


She's rather tall for her age.
versus
She's tall for her age.

He's very hungry.
versus
He's starving.

Again, I don't think all uses of these words need to be eradicated from your stories, but they do need to be used sparingly.

And here are a few words and phrases you can almost always delete:

Suddenly: This frequently gets overused at the start of a sentence. It can feel like you need it to show that the action is, well, sudden. Often you don't, though. "Suddenly the clock struck midnight" can be written as "The clock struck midnight" and nothing is lost. Likewise, "Suddenly he appeared in the doorway" can be, "He appeared in the doorway."

Not to mention: This is a strange phrase that gets used out of habit, I think. Because you say not to mention...and then you do just that. "Not to mention that she already has a boyfriend." For dialogue it's fine, because it's one of those phrases people use. In your prose, I'd be wary.

The fact is/the fact of the matter is: In prose, you typically can omit this phrase and just state whatever the fact actually is. In dialogue, however, you might choose differently. "The fact of the matter is, I love you," might win out over plain ol' "I love you."

Began to/started to: This is something I frequently see misused. Because if Jane began to put on her purse or started to stir the soup, the phrase implies that she gets interrupted. If your character actually does the thing, then you want to say Jane slung her purse over her shoulder or Jane stirred the soup.

For fun, consider opening your manuscript and searching for either an adverb, qualifying word, or one of the words/phrases on the above list. If you want, post in the comments what your sentence is and if you decided to keep it or not.

Since I'm in the middle of editing a novella (a companion to The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series) I decided to play to.

When I ran a search for -ly words. I found this adverb:
Skylar takes a deep breath, clearly trying to keep her tone under control as well. 
I'm choosing to leave it because the story is told in Abbie's POV and that "clearly" marks that this is Abbie's interpretation of why Skylar is taking a deep breath. That adverb prevents me from head hopping, which is yet another writing no-no.

When I searched for qualifying words, I found this:
Owen gave a little whimper in my arms and I realized I had been squeezing him too tight.
A whimper, by nature, is a little noise, so I'll cut that qualifier.

Of those other words and phrases I listed, the only one I had used in the novella was "suddenly":
There’s that word again. Suddenly everyone seems very concerned with my social life.
I even started a sentence with it, as you can see. But I like it, and I'll leave it. These are Abbie's thoughts, and she's miffed. I feel the use of suddenly contributes to her snarky voice.

So as you can see, these are guidelines for word choices rather than hard and fast rules. Weighing whether you've selected the right word or phrase can feel nitpicky, but it's the difference between flowing and clunky prose.

48 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for the reminders. I looked up "ly" in my short story's first draft and I had 7 hits. Need to change those. :)
    "Let's go down the slides" I suggested awkwardly. --- "Let's go down the slides" I stuttered.
    Here's one with "started":
    ... we grabbed a bagel and started munching. --- Nothing happened while we munched so I'm removing the "started". Thanks again.

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On second thought, would "we grabbed a bagel and bit in" be OK?

      Delete
    2. Ending with "in" reads awkward to me. And is this two people who grabbed A bagel and ate it? Or individual bagels? Because you can say something like, "I grabbed a bagel and took a hearty bite."

      Delete
  2. This post is going into my editting folder, great resource Stephanie. Thank you!

    I did a quick search on "ly", and the first one I came across was: The metal of the handle felt extremely cold against his sweaty palms.
    I can see how ice-cold rather than extremely cold would be so much stronger here

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  3. Oo, fun! Another phrase that has become a pet peeve of mine is "By the way..." It often feels like a weak way to change the subject.

    Now, mine. =) Here's my first "quite": Even having known Samuel all her thirteen years, her eyes had never quite grown accustomed to his beauty.

    I'm going to leave it because it implies she's mostly used to it, but not entirely. If I take it out it would imply that she's struck anew by his looks every time she sees him, which isn't true.

    My first -ly adverb: She could so easily imagine traveling with him.

    I like this one because I think it hints at how often she DOES imagine traveling with him...but it's not crucial. If it comes down to cutting words (as it often does with me, LOL), "so easily" would go bye-bye.

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    1. "By the way" is a good one. And I've noticed I tend to (in emails and such) use the expression "feel free to..." when I don't want to seem too bossy. "Feel free to check out my website for more resources" or whatever. When it's much cleaner to write, "For my resources, check out my website."

      And I agree - so easily can stay. For now :)

      Delete
  4. Oh, and I have a suddenly I intend to keep! Here it is: Why, when it was too late to change it? Suddenly tired, he leaned against the wall.

    I think this one's okay because it's modifying the adjective "tired" and not a verb... To take it out, I'd have to add an entire phrase to show he hadn't been tired a minute ago but now is.

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    1. That's an interesting distinction. I hadn't thought of that!

      Delete
  5. I used to have a lot of trouble with adverbs, and still trying to fight to urge to use them.

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. A lot of times I deal with them in the micro edit phase :)

      Delete
  6. First: I just have to let you know my reaction to the fact you're working on an Abbie novella:
    :D (and then a bunch of exclamation points)

    Second: Suddenly is a huge one for me. I'm editing a novel right now, and I keep tripping over that word. I can't wait to pull out my red pen later today! Thanks for a helpful post, Stephanie!

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    Replies
    1. I would hope so, Anna, because you're the one who inspired me to write it! I started working on it after that email you sent me. (Post Unlikely Debut, maybe?) It's been a great in-between project.

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    2. Oh my goodness, that's so awesome! Can't wait to hear more about it :)

      Delete
  7. Gilbert Morris is an author who tends to use suddenly way to often. The worst instance was when I read a series by him where in every book, the hero "Suddenly" realized that he loved the heroine. And it was always in the last chapter of the book. Anytime I type the word now, I think of that, and usually delete it.

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    1. It's so funny how words or phrases started to leap off the page at you, isn't it?

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  8. Oh, Stephanie! You have no idea how badly - ahem, how desperate I was for this article! :) I have been trying to learn more about adverbs, and when and when not to use them, so this came at just the right time! Thank you!

    And a novella about Abbie?? Yesss. :) Very excited about this!!! Have fun writing it!

    When I ran a search of "ly" in my WIP, I was surprised by how many -ly words I used. For example: "I inhaled sharply, as unwelcome memories wiggled past the tidy barriers my mind had set around them." Here's a revision: "I inhaled, hoping the sharp air would clear the unwelcome memories before they wiggled past the tidy barriers I had set around them."

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    1. Whitney, you crack me up! I'm glad the timing was so good.

      If it were me (which it isn't, so ignore me if you wish) I think I would leave "inhaled sharply." I can't give you a great reason for why I feel that way. Maybe because there isn't a stronger word for inhaled sharply? (None that I can think of anyway.) But I like it how you had it, even though it's an adverb.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for your advice! I appreciate it.

      I did have a challenging time trying to revise that. In the revised version, I at first liked the "before they wiggled" wording, but as I think about the context, the memories ARE getting loose, so I like the "as" better. I think that might be why "sharply" is better - the focus is more on the fact that they are getting past her restrictions, and that was her immediate action? Which therefore makes the sentence stronger? That's just what I thought of as I examined this sentence more.

      I can see it's going to take some serious discernment to discover which adverbs (and determiners!) to leave and which to edit! Makes me want to read more, and see how other authors did it. :)

      Delete
  9. My first writing teacher was really picky about adverbs, so thanks to him I'm always on the lookout for them...sometimes I get lazy, though, and then I end up whining to myself that it's "so much EASIER" to use adverbs!! lol. something to work on. ;)

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    1. Isn't that the truth? Glad you had someone to help you out early in your journey!

      Delete
  10. Excellent!! I always tend to overuse adverbs, and I just had a friend point out how I used a couple. :)

    I pulled up my WIP and did a search for -ly words. And low and behold, there it was, an adverb right in my opening line.

    Here it is: The rain drummed steadily on the rooftop as I snuggled further into Mom’s side, burying my head into her sweater.

    I can delete that adverb right there I'd say. Now, out of mere curiosity, I'm going to run a check on my 12,304 word long document. Oh goodness. I have 134 adverbs. A mite too many, I'd say.. oops. XD I've got some work to do when I'm done with this first draft!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I agree, Emma. Drumming rain denotes a steadiness, so it's an easy fix!

      And, yes, finish your first draft before tackling them all!

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    2. Thank you, Stephanie!

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  11. Oh, thank you, Stephanie! I knew this rule and always hear "don't use adverbs" but I never can seem to grasp the concept for some reason. But this post made it click in my brain! You always explain things so perfectly. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Just what I needed.

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    1. I'm so glad it helped! I'm like that too - sometimes I have to hear things a few times before the concept connects.

      Delete
  12. I've always heard people say stuff about not using adverbs. Thanks so much for making it understandable, Ms. Morrill (or do I call you Stephanie? That always confuses me).

    Youch! You should seriously see how much -ly shows up in my first draft of my WIP. Third sentence: "Mostly I like goats." Not sure if this should go or stay.

    I think I'll also finish my first draft before getting to ALL the adverbs!

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    1. I would keep that sentence :) And I'm definitely Stephanie. Some call me Mrs. Morrill, which is fine, but I'm a first name kind of gal.

      Delete
  13. I'm am SO happy that you're writing an Abbie novella, Stephanie! I can't wait to read it :)

    This is a helpful post. Without looking back at my WIP, I already know I tend to use "suddenly" and "the fact is" a lot. This is perfect timing since I'll be starting to edit soon. Thank you!

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  14. Such a helpful post, Stephanie, thank you!
    Last July I was reading through the GTW book, and Jill said something about new writers using adverbs too much. Soon after that, I went and read through some of my first first draft, and saw how many adverbs I used. I then figured out that was going to be a lot of editing time... :P

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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    1. Would this sentence be alright?

      Jalia squared her shoulders and stiffly bowed

      Thanks,
      TW

      Delete
    2. Since there's not another word that means to bow stiffly, I would keep it. But I would also check to make sure I haven't used too many adverbs right around that sentence :)

      Delete
    3. Thanks Stephanie! :D

      TW Wright
      ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

      Delete
  15. ...Like everyone else said, A NOVELLA? ABOUT ABBIE?! Eeeep!

    This is super-duper helpful. I know I use "qualifiers" way, way way waaaaay too much in speaking, and still too much in writing (in fact, I almost just said "rather too much"!). Thanks for the reminder to get rid of those in my lovely line-edits.

    Here's one: "Everyone seems to be a little quieter than usual, and I don’t blame them." -- yeah, let's get rid of it.

    Apparently I also use "actually" and "really" too much. Oops.

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    1. Thanks, Amanda! It's been so fun to write :)

      Actually and really are big ones too. I struggle with wanting to throw the phrase "or something" at the end of all my dialogue. "Wanna go watch a movie or something?" We all have our writing quirks!

      Delete
  16. I decided to look for -ly words and found on that was unnecessary. Here is the original:
    "She had completely forgotten that the ball was happening this week."

    I decided to take completely out because generally when you forget about something you completely forget it otherwise it would not be forgotten.

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  17. A book about Abbie? Yay! :D I've actually only the read the first Skylar Hoyt book (I am planning on getting the others) but it is still exciting!
    Does that mean there will only be two Ellie Sweet books? :( I've read the first one (and LOVED it!) and even though I still have the second one to read it's a little sad.
    Um... I'll definitely have to try to remember to search adverbs in my WIP, but not right now.... to painful.... ;)

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    1. You're so sweet, Naomi! Yes, for now there are only two Ellie books. The door isn't closed on a third installment, but it would have to be the right story for me to write another.

      And yes, save your adverb hunting for edits!

      Delete
    2. True, you dont want to force a third book... At least I have others to look forward to and to read! :)

      Delete
  18. I use waaay too many qualifiers in my writing. 'Rather' and 'quite' crop up a lot. I don't worry about that in first drafts, but it's something I'm going to have to work on in editing.

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    1. I always take care of it in edits too, Kate. At least you know what to watch for!

      Delete
  19. Ha ha!! I use rather and quite a lot. "Not to mention" sneaks up often too.
    As far as adverbs go, I always say use them sparingly. Look for a strong verb to replace it.

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  20. I did not find any adverbs for a couple paragraphs, but then three popped up one all at once! "The squirrels barely moved their tails in the treetops." I am trying to emphasize the still quietness... do you think "The squirrels' tails twitched in the treetops." would work? The next two are "The owls hardly dared breath, lest they miss it when the sound came again. The leaves of the tree waved softly in the slight breeze, then reset themselves to further watch the shadowy night." "Hardly" is okay, especially if I take a couple others out. I think I will take "softly" out. Thanks for the suggestions, Stephanie. :)

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  21. Hi everybody, I have a question on this. I have met people in real life who are very soft-spoken, and when you're revealing something, if you're tired, or any number of other things, you say the things softer than usual. You don't mumble. You're not whispering. You're just saying it with less volume. I call this "saying quietly" and I use this a lot in my books. I can't find any other word. Can I keep that for this kind of situation, or if not, do you have a better word?

    ~Journey~

    ReplyDelete

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