Thursday, August 2, 2012

Adverbs are not your friends - Writers Mantra 10

This is probably one of the earliest Writers Mantras that ever came to me.

Adverbs are not your friends

Bring up some of your prose in an editor, and search for the letters "ly." You should find adverbs. How are you using them? Can you do without the adverbs? How much are they contributing?

Your adverbs may be masking poor verb choices. Consider the bland verb "ran." It doesn't convey much more than fast moving by foot. Contrast this verb with amble, bound, break, canter, dart, dash, drop, escape, fly, gallop, jog, lope, pace, thrash, rush, scamper, scuttle, spring, sprint, spurt, tear, trot, and whisk.

Each of these words conveys a distinct meaning that evokes something more than fast moving by foot.

Suppose you want your hero to get from Point A to Point B with great haste and urgency. He can't just "run" there. He might "quickly run" there, but is that as dramatic as if he "raced?" Or if it's a short distance, he "sprinted."

Because the drama is in your verbs, you want to choose the one with maximal impact that conveys your intent. Sure, your intent can be conveyed with an adverbial phrase. It will be easier to write, but it will be weaker.

Rack your brain for better verbs.

Think about what you're doing in the scene. Maybe the adverbs are there because you're telling, and not showing. Same for all your modifiers: adjectives and prepositional phrases. But these are mantras for another day.
(If you are wondering about the earlier Writers Mantras, you can start here.)
Update: And the next three mantras are here.

And keep an eye open for a Big Announcement on Friday.


  1. Adverbs are a sign of caution. The writer doesn't feel any authority over the story. But note, author is the root of authority. Don't hesitate. Define.

    At the same time, I find "ran" and other such verbs to be strong on their own. It's a simple word. It shows me that the writer is comfortable with making a plain statement. You're correct to say that a character ought to sprint if that's what the character actually does, but running is also good. The problem comes in when every motion is done in the same way or when the motion isn't an important part of the story.

  2. Thanks for the blog! I noticed I am using adverbs a lot, and many times I realized a stronger verb would remove the need for the adverb.

    This helps me think about it before writing it down.


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