Sunday, August 23, 2009


By Earl Staggs

Nouns are strong, verbs can be strong, adjectives are semi-strong, but adverbs are weak and writers should avoid using them. So the writing gurus say. I agree.


Not all adverbs are bad. No secret agency will send men in black suits after us if we use them. Sometimes adverbs are a valid word choice. For instance, we might say, “His writing is bad” or we could say, “His writing is very bad.” The adverb “very” adds emphasis and more meaning to the statement. Or we might begin sentences with adverbs such as “Hopefully” or “Actually” and no black suits will come to our door.

On the other hand, we might have doors closed in our faces if we overuse adverbs. There are editors--and readers--who consider adverbs the sign of a poor writer or one too lazy to work harder to find better and stronger word choices.

Here's how I fell about it.

When we go into our editing and tightening mode, we should treat each adverb as a suspect and interrogate it. Keep your Thesaurus handy and don’t be too lazy to use it. Seek out each adverb, look up the verb or adjective it modifies and try to find a stronger word to replace the adverb combination. For example: “She stared angrily at him.” Both “glared” and “glowered” are strong verbs which mean “to stare angrily” and either one would do the job without the need for an adverb modifier.

Sometimes the adverb is unnecessary or redundant. Don't say “She ran quickly to the door.” “Ran“ tells us she moved fast, so “quickly” is not needed. Don't write that someone “clenched his fist tightly.” A “clench” is always tight and “tightly” is redundant.

The writing gurus also tell us: Never use an adverb to modify “said” or other dialogue tag. I agree.


Here are examples of the same line of dialogue said three different ways:

“I want to go,” she said firmly.
“I want to go,” she said hopefully.
“I want to go,” she said sadly.

I have three reasons for disliking this kind of sentence:

1. Although she’s saying the same words, her emotion is different each time. The reader doesn’t know how the words were said until the end of the sentence. Better to know her mood before reading her words so we read it in correct context the first time through.

2. Editors and readers who see a lot of this construction in our writing may be Adamant Anti-Adverbists and dismiss us as poor writers. Why take that risk when with a little more effort, we can make our work stronger and tighter and avoid rejection?

3. Using an “ly” adverb to modify a dialogue tag is telling, not showing. We all know the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule and this kind of sentence is a blatant offender. Instead, we should show her emotion first, then let her speak.

Here are examples of how we might revise those lines:

She crossed her arms and took a firm stance. “I want to go.”
I saw the glimmer of hope in her eyes when she said, “I want to go.”
She turned away but couldn’t hide her sadness when she spoke. “I want to go.”

Those may not be the best revisions to the lines. With more thought and effort, I know we could come up with better ones.



L. Diane Wolfe said...

LOL - adverb alert!

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

Mark Troy said...

How about:

Dammit, I'm going with you.
Can I go, too? I might be able to help.
He was my best friend, I owe it to him to go.

Earl Staggs said...

Excellent, Mark. Many times, when you choose the right words, nothing else may be needed to get the meaning across.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Waht gets funny is when you read a story/novel by a obsessive user of a thesarus who felt the need to try to use every word choice for a simple word.

Kevin R. Tipple

Earl Staggs said...

So true, Kevin. I see that a lot and I'm not impressed. I try to keep handy in a frontal lobe Strunk and White's Rule 14:

Avoid fancy words: Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.