Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Editors often say the mark of a novice fiction writer can be characterized by the use of too many -ly verbs. And yet, even some of the most seasoned professionals find themselves relapsing into the adverb abyss. Why? Well, there are many reasons, but the most basic is probably because –ly verbs are easy. They are quick fixes tossed in to tell the reader how something feels or why something is happening without showing the degree or extent. Here’s an example:

Tim walked quietly into the room.

From this sentence the reader is aware that Tim entered the room without making sound. It gets the point across, but it skirts Tim’s real actions by not showing what measures he takes in order to be quiet. If the writer stopped to think of what actions constitute a quiet entrance, the same sentence might read like this:

Tim tiptoed into the room.

In this improved version, the reader has a better knowledge of the scene and what is taking place. It is no longer a boring read and includes realism and drama.

Another place adverbs habitually appear is within tag lines. (See article: DIALOG DESPAIR below.) In an attempt at creativity writers may actually weaken their character’s dialog while committing high treason in the writing world. Use of these adverbs go against the number one rule; show, don’t tell. Here’s an example:

“That was close,” Susan said breathlessly.

The writer tells us Susan is breathless, but the text would be stronger if the writer showed Susan’s breathlessness through her words and actions.

“Whew! That was close,” Susan said, stopping to catch her breath.

Sometimes adverbs are used alongside already strong action verbs. As if that weren’t bad enough, they are often partnered with those that hold the same meaning. Here are a few examples:

He clenched his fists tightly.

The amplifier blared loudly.

In both these cases the writer clutters the sentences by repeating the same facts. In the first one, the verb “clenched” means to tightly hold together. By adding the adverb “tightly” to it, the writer has defined the verb for the reader. In the second example the same is true. The verb “blared” means to make a loud, harsh noise. Adding the adverb “loudly” is redundant and talks down to the reader.

By deleting these adverbs the sentences are easier to read and make a stronger impact. You will find this to be the case in most areas where adverbs make unnecessary appearances. A quick way to tell if an adverb is important is to read the sentence, skipping over the questioning word. If the adverb isn’t missed and the sentence works just as well without it, it should be deleted.

-Ly verbs are also frequently used to segue action or new scenes. The most familiar is probably the word “suddenly” . If you are one who punctuates with too many exclamation points to help build excitement, you may also be guilty of the suddenly segue. Here’s an example:

Suddenly, a loud boom split the night!

The word suddenly means to happen quickly or unexpectedly. By writing short, action packed sequences you can easily convey “suddenly”. Here’s how:

Boom! An explosion split the night. The ground shook and the sky lit up.

In fiction, adverbs often take away rather than add to your work. Therefore, a conscientious writer will look to correct these slip-ups. So, before sending your manuscript off to that dream agent or editor, click the “find” button on your word processor and type in –ly. How many hits do you get? Look them over. Make sure they are legitimate and not in the league of those noted above. A few simple corrections can positively boost your sales and constructively confirm your professionalism.

-Niki Schoenfeldt


  1. Thanks for this reminder, Niki. May I send my readers [all 3 of them :-)] here this week for some pointers?


  2. Of course Jean, that's what this blog is for! Happy Holidays, Girl!!!

  3. I'm one of Jean's "3" blog readers and I loved this post. If you want to stop by mine, click here: ”Kim Kasch’s Blogspot”

  4. good blog, NIki-- nice that Jean linked to you. I'm passing this along to my 17-year-old who loves adverbs --immensely!! Carol

  5. Great! Glad to hear some of you have found my article useful. Feel free to ad your two cents and by all means refer it to anyone you think can benefit. When it comes to us writers, we're all for one and one for all! (Hmm, where have I heard that before?)


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