11 Adverbs

Of all the principles and techniques that will improve your writing, how you deal with adverbs is, perhaps the most powerful. In short, the removal of adverbs will make you a better writer, forcing you to avoid ‘lazy writing’ and, instead, develop a writing style that will naturally engage your readers. In addition, the conscious removal of adverbs will force you to SHOW. You will find that adverbs are most commonly used in sections of TELL.

Let’s start with identifying an adverb. Adverbs are words that modify verbs. A verb is a doing word (run, walk, fly etc.). Most adverbs end in –ly, so they are easy to spot. This might sound complicated but don’t worry. Once you learn to spot an adverb, they’ll jump out the page at you like dirty little trolls!

Here’s an example:

He closed the door firmly.

Here “closed” is he verb and “firmly” is the adverb.

So what’s so bad? You have a nice clear picture of the door being closed, well… firmly.

The problem is that by using adverbs you are TELLING the reader how the door is being closed. The reader isn’t SHOWN and there’s no room for interpretation. Remember TELL is bad, SHOW is good.

Let’s now consider what happens if we remove the adverb:

He closed the door.

This doesn’t tell us anything about how he closed the door. Surely this is worse? Well, actually the opposite is the case. When read in this sentence, which has no context, it makes no sense, but reading/writing is all about context.

What is essential to consider is what comes before and after the adverb.

Looking back at out example of the closed door. If the paragraph before had described the door closer tiptoeing through a room, trying not to wake a baby, the closure of the door will mean one thing. However, if the paragraph before had described a moody teenager storming from a room after an argument, the closure is something else.

The power here is that the context and texture of your writing will SHOW the reader and allow them to fill in the gaps. The reader will decide HOW the door is closed. They will become part of the process. They will build a picture in their mind’s eye, engaging with your words and becoming part of the story. Now that’s powerful stuff.

Sorry, let me dwell on this a moment. What I am showing you here is a technique you can use that forces the reader to build the story in their own mind. It allows you to force the reader to fully engage with your work.

What’s more, by ruthlessly removing adverbs you are forcing yourself to write in a way that SHOWS not TELLS. Each time you kill an adverb you must look at your prose with new eyes. You must ask yourself, ‘I am giving the reader enough for this to make sense?’

So far we have been talking about the use of adverbs in general prose. If you are able to eliminate as many of these as possible, and then ensuring the context is in place for your verbs to make sense, you will be a better writer.

We now turn our attention to adverbs and dialogue tagging (attribution).

The rule with dialogue is simple:

Under no circumstances should you be using adverbs in relation to dialogue.

Never.

NEVER ever.

NEVER EVER EVER.

Adverbs used in dialogue will, beyond any other bad habit, mark you out as an amateur.

They are evil and must be destroyed.

Writers lacking in confidence, often find themselves falling into the habit of explaining a character’s dialogue, and this makes sense. Consider the situation. You have written a complex scene, you have thought carefully about a character’s internal dialogue and how they will react. You want to make sure that this is not missed by the reader. So you explain your dialogue.

For example, in this scene a mother asks her son about his homework. This is pretty simple. The son hates homework; the mother wants him to do it. It goes like this:

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ Paul’s mother asked harshly.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul sadly.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play,’ said Paul’s mother firmly.

Welcome to amateur hour! It pains me just to write this prose. I think I need a shower.

The use of adverbs (harshly, sadly and firmly) marks the writer out as lacking in confidence. Worse still, they just don’t work. TELLING never works. The reader will just turn off. For this scene to work the reader must be given the room to fill in the gaps themselves.

Let’s look at the same example, but with the adverbs killed dead:

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ asked Paul’s mother.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play.’

No difference. The reader still gets the gist of the exchange. Also notice that the final attribution to Paul’s mother has been removed without the world exploding. It could be argued that in this example the reader is not aware that Paul’s mother is annoyed with Paul and the homework is a constant touchstone for arguments, and I agree. Using SHOW you can’t pass this type of information in a few words, but why would you want to?

Remember, context is everything. All the words that come before this fraction of dialogue will give the words context. If this is the third time Paul has had homework and the other two resulted in conflict, the reader will fill in the gaps. They will know what Paul and his mother feels (or think they know) and the reader will add weight to the words. This is engagement.

Still not convinced? Still think you need something extra? Ok, what about adding a beat?

‘Have you got any homework Paul?’ asked Paul’s mother.

‘Yeah, loads,’ said Paul. He turned to look at his mother, a frown spread across his face.

‘Well, you need to get it done before you can go out to play.’

Here, by adding “he turned to look at his mother, a frown spread across his face”, we’ve added some context, giving a clue about Paul’s internal voice. It’s all about context and not adverbs.

Finally… adverbs are your friends in only one way. In fact, adverbs can be invaluable.

The reason?

If you have put an adverb in your writing then you are almost certainly TELLING not SHOWING.

Adverbs are TELL flags. Hunt them out, kill them and turn the TELL to SHOW.

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