Avoiding Adverbs

After the Plain or Fancy post from Gillian Cross, I got to thinking about adverbs. How and when should we use them? Is right to cull a manuscript of the little blighters? Or do they have a role to play in our prose. I came to an interesting conclusion.

It seems to me that as we write a first draft, we often use adverbs in places where we want to express ourselves with a passion. But using an adverb may not be the best option for the emotions we’re trying to express. Instead we can think of them as a marker for us to revisit during the editing phase. But what options are available to us when editing if we find an adverb staring at us on the page?

Good Bad Ugly

Below, I’ve taken examples from the first draft of my novel, Fury, and compared them to a later, edited, version. Here’s what I found:

Strengthen the Verb – choosing a stronger verb is often the better course.

A cold blast forced its way into the cosy living room and behind it came the butcher breathing heavily.

Cold air forced its way into the living room and behind it came the butcher panting to catch his breath.

Speech Tags – However, you can’t do that with speech tags, as fancy verbs like ‘screeched’ or ‘yelled’ aren’t as invisible to the reader as plain old ‘said’. There are some things you can try though:

-Cut the tag

“You may not always see eye to eye, but he’s your father,” she said softly. “He loves you in his own way.”

“You may not get on with your father, but Gustaf loves you in his own way.”

-Use stronger dialogue

“You left the door off the hook last night,” she said roughly, settling down in her blanket-chequered armchair next to the warmth of the stove.

“You left the door ajar last night, girl,” Grandma Crina said after she’d eased herself into her armchair next to the stove.

-Add a character’s action or reaction

“You have to get the boy out of here,” he said suddenly. “The widow’s dead and they aim to hang him for it.”

The butcher looked unsettled. Clutching a hand to his chest, he lurched towards Slav. “You have to get out of here,” he said. “The widow’s dead and they aim to hang you for it.”

Adverbs often ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ – there can be better ways than an adverb to express the emotions of a story.

-Use action to convey emotion

Slav sat silent, his mood suddenly darker. He didn’t want to remember the accusations of the villagers.

He didn’t want to remember the accusations of the villagers. He twisted the fringes of the tablecloth around his knuckles as he watched Maria lift the iron kettle onto the stove.

-Use senses to convey emotion

Desperately he tried to stay alert, but he could feel his senses slipping away.

He was numb from cold and pain and fatigue, but he fought with the last drop of his strength.

Cut – finally there are times when an adverb can simply be cut, for example:

-when it repeats an idea – early dawn

-or when the verb is strong enough alone – shuffled aimlessly

(Picture courtesy of Caroline Holden-Hotopf)

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au, iTunes and Kobo.

7 thoughts on “Avoiding Adverbs

  1. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” (Mark Twain)

  2. Kelly Cautillo says:

    Reblogged this on kellycautillo and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  3. I believe this is one of the toughest but most rewarding exercises, Lorrie. We love to speak with adverbs because we are pretty lazy with our speech. That leads to first drafts loaded with lazy speech but the point there is to get the story down. Time enough for culling after the first draft. Thanks for a revealing post with excellent examples. You SHOWED us and we love it.

  4. Mridula says:

    Very insightful post indeed!

    Critique/review/comment this flash fiction in the LINK please

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