Monday, March 7, 2011

MFA Monday: The Evil of Adverbs

Before I write, two quick links...

I redesigned my website to be cleaner and leaner - like my writing, I hope. :)  As my publisher decided not to go ahead with publishing a book club edition of my book right now, I've included the book club questions for discussion on the website that are easily accessed and printed off. If you know anyone who wants to use Some Kind of Normal for a book club (I know a few already that have, which is SO exciting!!), let them know about the questions page.

Also, over at my Four Corners Critique Group blog we've been a little lax in posting lately, especially me, so I've decided to start posting parts of my reading commentaries over there. This last week I posted a few pages about The Importance of Plot as seen in The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. There's a few spoilers in it, but hopefully it's interesting. Luckily, my advisor likes my commentaries to be in my own voice and not some higher academic-sounding psuedo-intellectual voice.

Okay - on to today...

The evils of adverbs....

This is what I heard somewhere down the line while learning from books and blogs about how to write. Adverbs are evil. Cut them out.

How refreshing then, to show up to a lecture at residency and hear one of the great writers/faculty say this:

"Adverbs are necessary for a writer. They contextualize things in time and space. If you take them out, you've lost something important."


While I know that in practicing the art of removing adverbs makes you choose stronger verbs, sometimes it just isn't enough. Maybe what's giving adverbs a bad name is the repetitious use of the "-ly" words.

My crit partner pointed out that in the span of a page, I used three "-ly" adverbs and they began to stick out. My main character ate silently, said carefully, chewed deliberately.

Maybe it sounds like lazy writing because I relied on the easy words, but I couldn't just get rid of them. Each of those adverbs displays a necessary mental picture - informs the reader about something by showing instead of telling, and I needed them.

What, then, is a writer to do? According to my professor, use adverbial phrases. Instead of relying on the easy "-ly" word, replace it with an adverbial phrase or clause that says the same thing, only better.

Here's how it's changed:

Original: "They ate silently for a few minutes before Alicia put her spoon down..."

Change: "They ate, unspoken words building in the silence until Alicia put down her spoon..."

Original: "'I'm still upset with the way you left,' Alicia said carefully."

Change: "'I'm still upset with the way you left,' Alicia said, measuring each word with an equal balance of honesty and trepidation.

If you are guilty of peppering your first drafts with -ly words, don't cut them all. Go back and see if you can replace them with adverb phrases instead. It will not only get rid of the repetitious and somewhat lazy feeling of the writing, it will give you the chance to write something even better.


  1. I put ly words in my first draft then try to think of stronger words or phrases later. It's nice to know that not all adverbs are evil.

  2. I don't have a problem with adverbs BUT "that" crops EVERYWHERE - I always have to do a high light to find them all...

  3. Heidi, I just checked out your website. Great! Your blog and your website, together, are like finding some indescribably wonderful candy you've got to have more of. Congratulations!

  4. Excellent examples!! I have to teach on this next weekend and I love how you showed it. I think it added more to the sentence.

  5. Your website does look so pretty and clean, Heidi. I love the blue and white.

    I'm guilty of adverb overusage, AND I'm especially (oops! adverb alert) guilty of the same thing as your reader Jolene. I'm "That" Girl, too! (Oooh! Remember that show?!)

  6. Yes, I love BREAK THE RULES posts. Yay for adverbs. I'm going to use some today.