Writer Wednesdays

Writer Wednesday: Adverbs – Search & Destroy (most of them)

A lot of basic writing courses and workshops (including the ones I teach) are anti-adverb. Here, we’ll talk about WHY.

First, what is an adverb? An adverb is a word that modifies a verb. It tells us HOW an action is done. Adverbs end in “ly.” Here are some examples:

He walked quickly.
They said loudly.
She screamed immediately.
He jumped suddenly.

So what’s the problem with these? They’re not grammatically wrong. They’re spelled correctly. They don’t cause confusion.


They’re clunkier than a 1994 sedan with a dragging muffler and two flat tires. Overused, they’re fussy and melodramatic. They decorate boring nouns. And they make it seem like the writer is getting paid by the word.

In the line editing stage of your writing process–so after revisions but before proofreading–be on the lookout for adverbs. When you see one, ask yourself two questions:

If I remove this adverb, does it change the meaning of the sentence? (If the answer is no, delete that adverb.)

Is there a more specific verb I can use instead–a verb that describes itself? (If so, delete the weak verb and adverb and replace them with a better verb.)

Let’s look at the examples above one more time.

“He walked quickly.”
Well, “walked” is not very specific. We need a better verb. “He hurried.” “He rushed.” “He jogged.” For fun: “He mall-walked.”

“They said loudly.”
Now, it’s true we want to use “said” most often in dialogue tags, because it’s almost invisible to the reader, but in this case, “They shouted” or “They yelled” would be much better.

“She screamed immediately.”
Removing “immediately” does not change the meaning of the sentence. Think about it: most screams are pretty immediate. If it can go without saying, don’t say it.

It’s the same with “He jumped suddenly.” Context will tell the reader what they need to know. If someone jumped because they got scared or surprised, we already know it was “sudden.” So, again, just delete that adverb and go with “He jumped.” 

No, it will not kill your story to use a few adverbs. No, you will not be kicked out of any writers’ groups. But, if you keep them to a minimum by asking yourself the questions above, your prose will be cleaner, clearer, and more sophisticated.

Leave a Reply