In this section, you’ll discover why adverbs are evil, why they should be removed and how to spot them in your prose.

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 author, forcing you to avoid lazy writing and, instead, developing 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.

As an editor, spotting adverbs is a full-time job. You must be on constant look out for adverbs, deleting them whenever possible.

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 off the page at you, like dirty little trolls.

Here’s an example:

He closed the door firmly.

Here ‘closed’ is the 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 TELLING is bad; SHOWING 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, in reality, the opposite is the case. When reading this sentence, which has no wider 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.

Look back at our example of the closed door. If the paragraph before had described the person about to close the door as 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 door 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. The reader will become part of the process. They will build a picture in his or her mind’s eye, engaging with your words and becoming part of the story.

Now that’s powerful stuff.

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 his or her own mind. It allows you to force the reader to fully engage with your work. What’s more, by removing adverbs with ruthless precision, 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, am I giving the reader enough context 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 ensure the context is in place for your verbs to make sense, you will be a better author. This is your role when self-editing. You need to be looking for adverbs and then removing where possible. You must also try to ensure that adverbs are not covering sections of tell. As a self-edit, you are always looking to switch tell to show.

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

The rule with dialogue is simple:

Under no circumstances should you use adverbs in relation to dialogue.

Never.

NEVER ever.

NEVER EVER EVER EVERLY.

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

They are evil and must be destroyed.

Authors, lacking in confidence, often find themselves falling into the habit of explaining the motivation for a character’s dialogue. 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 newbie author, one lacking in confidence. Worse still, the adverbs 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 alone.

Let’s look at the same example but with the adverbs killed dead (if self-editing this is what the section would look like once your work was done):

“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 that the homework issue is a constant touchstone for arguments, and I agree. Using SHOW, you can’t pass along 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 section of dialogue will give these words context. If this is the third time Paul has had homework, and the other two resulted in conflicts with his mom, the reader will fill in the gaps. The reader will know what Paul and his mother feels (or the reader thinks so anyway), 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, with ‘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.

If you want to learn more about the adverbs in writing, then this extensive article will help: https://bubblecow.com/blog/the-adverb-problem-and-why-authors-should-care

Exercise

As a self-editor, removing adverbs is a really important task. Not only will it make your writing better but it will also help you find sections of TELL.

  1. Read the first chapter of your book and look for adverbs.
  2. Each time you find an adverb remove it.
  3. Reread the section and decide if there is enough context for the sentence to still make sense. If not consider adding a paragraph before or even a beat.
If you are having trouble finding adverbs, this free tool will help: http://www.cthreepo.com/writing/adverb-detector/