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Writing 101, Day Eight: Death to Adverbs

Go to a public location and make a detailed report of what you see. The twist of the day? Write the post without adverbs.

Go to a local café, park, or public place and report on what you see. Get detailed: leave no nuance behind.

Thoughtful writers create meaning by choosing precise words to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. As you strive to create strong imagery, show your readers what’s going on; avoid telling them.

Today’s twist: write an adverb-free post. If you’d rather not write a new post, revisit and edit a previous one: excise your adverbs and replace them with strong, precise verbs.

The sin of telling often begins with adverbs. Author Stephen King says that, for writers, the road to hell is paved with adverbs:

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs…are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind….With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Instead of using adverbs as a crutch, rely on strong verbs to convey emotional qualities that imbue your writing with nuance, allowing the reader to fire up their imagination. Consider, for example:

“She walked proudly out the door.”

Remove the adverb “proudly” and replace it with a strong verb to denote how she walked:

She strutted out the door.

She sashayed out the door.

She flounced out the door.

Each example connotes the emotion with which “she” moved, creating a more vivid picture than “proudly” ever could.

Need a helping hand? Head to The Commons.

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  1. Why strong verbs for this, but not strong words for speaking? You just said we should avoid anything other than “said”. I think I get it, but would like you to explain the distinction.

    1. When it comes to dialogue, you want the language that your characters use, the setting, and their actions to convey tone, mood, and motive. Inserting descriptive words for said, such as barked, shouted, whispered, bellowed, cried, does the reader’s work for them.

      To me, the best stories allow the reader’s imagination to determine precisely how something was said or done. I like what Lisa Moore has to say on letting the reader do the heavy lifting:

      Lisa Moore, whose novel Caught is nominated for the Giller prize, crafts her scenes with the same purpose, and her economical use of language allows the imagination of the reader to twin with that of the writer, working together across the arc of the story. “The strongest fiction, for me as a reader, is that which allows me to create it in my head and, as a writer, I like to give the reader as much control as possible—I think that’s where the real pleasure lies.”

      Lisa Moore gives the reader control

      1. It’s ironic, in all of the writing classes I’ve ever been in, we were encouraged to NOT use only “said”, and I certainly prefer reading things that use more descriptive words.

      2. @Kirsta I would love to know what you think of my entry please sorry to hijack this, I find the challenges go out at a time when my kids come home so I am usually unable to then start writing so I have to wait until the next day when usually the enthusiasm for commenting and looking at posts has understandably dwindled, so would love some feedback from you please. Also is there any chance this or next batch of challenges could be posted earlier for us Europeans that have kids as it does make it very hard:-)

        http://eclecticoddsnsods.com/2014/06/12/writing-101-day-eight-i-can-do-this/

        xx

    2. From what I’ve read on writing, if you use the strong verbs instead of “said” judiciously then they stand out and make a strong statement when you want them to. Also, the point of using “she said” is because people just kind of glance over that and move through the dialogue smoothly. The “said” blends in so the reader stays in the moment, in the conversation.

      1. You’re right, Amie. Using said makes readers glance over the verb and pay attention to what they are saying instead.

    3. For another point of view: Robert B. Parker writes some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read in his Spenser books. And he doesn’t use any speaking verbs at all.

      1. This sounds like an excellent approach!
        Of course, like so many things, it ultimately comes down to personal preference, but I always find it really puts me off when a writer litters their text with speaking verbs – all that “she whispered” “he bellowed” “she giggled” “he inferred” is so off-putting and can very often come across as very amateurish and bit too ‘try hard’.

        Back to adverbs, this is going to be an interesting assignment – eek!

    4. When writing dialogue, authors want the the spoken words to stand out against the narration so readers can “hear” the conversation.

      One way of thinking about this is to regard the dialogue as a picture and the narration as its frame; if the frame is too pronounced, you lose sight of the picture. “Said” is a simple frame that allows readers to know who’s speaking without coloring the picture–it can stand on its own, natural and uninhibited. Words other than “said” function like adverbs in that they tell readers the dialogue isn’t strong enough on its own, so the author has to tell them how to “hear” the dialogue. Thus, “said” is preferred. From time to time, “asked” or “replied” can be used where appropriate, but only sparingly.

      You can also leave off speech tags providing the speaker is 100 percent obvious. Another technique is to frame dialogue with other, more vivid actions that can help shape how dialogue sounds while adding to your characterization.

      Consider this example: “Then after lunch–no,” she said, pushing her dog off the couch. “Now, where was I?”

      Versus: “Then after lunch–no.” She whipped her finger at her dog and it jumped off the couch. “Now, where was I?”

      Dialogue can be powerful, but like any piece of art, for it to be truly appreciated, it must first be properly framed.

    5. @eclecticoddsnsods I like the level of detail you put into this — just goes to show that any topic can be intriguing when it’s closely observed. (I’d never thought about writing about a workout.) :)

      1. I usually “pretend” I am somewhere else anyway. They “let” us share personal info with the whole planet; what better way to create new settings and dialogues for improving our writing abilities could there be? The passive voice can be hard to re-vise; sometimes there is no object that receives the action. I do not mind the more personal prompts; I like them less than the other ones, albeit.

    1. I love that you’re working on finding just the right word for an idea that you’re trying to convey.

      I don’t have any specific tools to offer other than a good weighty thesaurus. How about promenade, stride, march, or swagger?

    2. try a thesaurus! for me, flounce doesn’t mean anger at all. Flounce could be fun and sassy, such as Mimi and Ron flounced through the meadow picking daisies…

      1. I just looked up the word in American and British dictionaries and thesauri – as I am not of English mother tongue, this is one way for me to find the nuances of your language. According to the dictionaries, flounce implies impatience or anger, with synonyms like storm, sweep, stomp, stamp. A thesaurus will not find a replacement for verb/adverb combinations usually. It seems – as in any language – very hard to precisely express what one means. Thus I come to love the way some of my Welsh friends talk or preach, with an overload of three to four adverbs using a strong verb too, painting a picture and describing a field of connotation of what they mean. It is just a pain to translate – which I usually do.

  2. Always liked that King quote…with the adverb.
    Good vocabulary is one of the best tools for writers…as long as you don’t end up sounding like the kid who just discovered a thesaurus. Ah, restraint, flow, concise, and precise.
    (Or if you feel totally bonkers, and want a giggle, write/rewrite replacing every single word you can with an -ly adverb. Might end up with a winning entry for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest…they have genre categories and Dishonorable Mentions. If hilarious is more your mood today.)

    1. I actually enjoy sometimes sounding like the kid who just discovered a thesaurus. Sometimes I got back and replace every other word in my piece with its “fancier” synonym.

  3. Wow… I’d love to follow this assignment, but is way above my league :) by the way…

    I’ve been asked by other blogger fellow to provide a link to the 50th post milestone batch I made myself the other day, for my Intuitive writing post which is here:

    http://byswav.com/2014/06/07/intuitive-writing/

    Here is the link for the file: https://byswav.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/50-post-milestone-simple.png (It’s 1272 pixels wide because I use the ryu theme, but you can easily modified yourself)

    How many posts you’ve reached so far on your blog?

    1. Hi Swav, love that you’ve been such an active participant in the challenge! Starting a side convo here about the number of blog posts is a bit off-topic. I’d suggest tossing this question up in the Commons for some lively discussion.

  4. As a former journalist and high school English teacher, I concur with this article. While I do feel that it was harsh when describing writers who use adverbs as “timid”, I do agree that adverbs are overused. Writing sans adverbs may seem to be a Herculean task, but I could be a fun challenge if you let it be.

  5. For those seeking more descriptive vocabulary, I suggest using a different dictionary rather than a thesaurus. Personally, I’ve found Webster’s 1913 edition quite useful; case in point: the letter assignment. I was able to change the word “guilt” to “pained for some evil.” I can’t take all the credit though: this blog helped.

    1. Yes I generally need to use a dictionary or thesaurus more than I do. But I have found that a thesaurus won’t usually help someone think up a word that they haven’t already thought up. I am still trying to find the answer to this problem. But a good dictionary probably can be a great help.
      Your link didn’t take me anywhere I don’t think however.

  6. I’m in over my head with this one. (I think there may be adverbs in that sentence.) If you’re familiar with Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person” columns, then you’ll have a fair idea about (adverb?) my level of grammatical expertise. I reviewed my previous blogs and could pick out the ‘ly’ adverbs, but beyond that, I see no reason to hope.

  7. I have mixed feelings about a lot of these ‘writing rules’ – show/tell – adverbs/no adverbs, etc. I find I like an eclectic writing palette, and sometimes I actually prefer adverbs and telling. I think knowing the rules (and when to break them) works too!

    1. Rules are meant to be broken — we look at these as more constraints to try your hand at and see how they work out for you. What it amounts to is another technique to pad your toolkit.

      1. That makes sense! I was seeing the assignments as a right and wrong way of writing. But another technique in my toolkit can’t hurt! Thanks, Krista.

  8. This challenge is complex, and yet i can’t wait to see what i come up with. It’s fun to play around with words and how they are written; i have to pretend on this one since i am at work, which is extremely boring. I could use my school setting…this assignment is tricky.

  9. I agree adjectives and adverbs should be carefully chosen, but I am sure as a linguist, an English teacher, a reader, and a writer, that they definitely have their place, in all types of written discourse.
    However, for the sake of following today’s assignment, I have written an ‘adverbless’ and almost adjectiveless version. For those who are inclined, there is another version with adverbs and more adjectives. Which do you prefer? Why?

    http://lucciagray.wordpress.com/category/writing101/

  10. Everyone be ready for your proofreader to tell you you’re using too many “complex expressions.” I love you, WordPress, you know I do, but my intended audience is not children — I purposely use “big words” to give my writing spice. I, for some reason, find it hilarious when one of my words is underlined for not being “simple” enough.

  11. “You are probably using the wrong dictionary,” the is from http://jsomers.net/blog/dictionary. From Longreads. What I would say is, in a society of consummation, we are brainwashed all day, by media advertising adverbs, pointing everywhere, and even in the middle of nowhere,that we use them as shortcuts, in our thinking, instead of the use ours.(notice, that I used here only one adverb; probably)
    Thank you for you advice

  12. I used only one adverb in my post and it was the one mentioned in the prompt: proudly. However, it was already paired with a strong verb “waved” and there’s not a better word to describe what a flag does while still incorporating the idea of pride.

    Of course, grammatical circumlocutions are always available but concision wins out over adverb avoidance.

  13. I struggle with adverbs myself. It’s horrifying to have to put aside an entire part of my vocabulary but I have tried to avoid them as much as possible. Adverbs and cliches have their place, but they should only be in that place and not all over place, spilling over the edges of their destined location and taking over an entire piece.

  14. I missed a couple of previous assignments and was inspired to incorporate elements from those two with this one – the contrasting elements dialogue and the first segment of the series about loss.

    Please, let me know what you think of the story. It is fictional but based on a true story- my story. Is it engaging? Does it meet the assignments expectations. Is it relatable?

    Looking forward to reading you alls interpretations of the assigment as well!

    https://carascreative.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/losing-self-part-one/