Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Read this," she said firmly.

As a writer, you have many tools in your arsenal, not the least of which are the parts of speech. (Hey! Don't knock 'em til you try 'em!) An evocative adjective sets the scene. Deft use of conjunctions weave parts into a whole. Verbs (as long as they aren't passive voice, but that's another post) used well create movement, drama, characterization, tension, and imagery.

Adverbs, though...adverbs are not your friend.

Oh, they pretend to be. They slip into your mind, sneak across your keyboard, and land on your page and you think, "There! That tells the reader what she needs to know!" And you dust off your hands and move on.

The problem is this: adverbs tell. They do not show.

Excellent writing shows, rather than tells.

Ergo, adverbs are not your friend.

Does this mean you can't ever use adverbs in your manuscript? Of course not. But adverbs, like cayenne pepper, must be used sparingly (Look! An adverb!) or they take over the entire thing.

There are better, stronger ways to approach your writing than relying on adverbs. Because an adverb modifies an action, you can use more action to show the reader what is going on.

For example:

"Did you hear about the dead body Sammy Watts found in his tool shed?"

"No," Tess said calmly, though she wanted to scream.


"Did you hear about the dead body Sammy Watts found in his tool shed?"

"No." Tess forced herself to breathe, to untwist her hands and shove them in her pockets, as she bit the inside of her lip to keep from screaming.

See the difference? In both cases, you're giving the reader the information that Tess's words don't match her emotions and something strange is going on under the surface, but when you substitute action for an adverb, you thrust the reader inside Tess's head, force the reader to feel her tension, and leave the reader's emotions just a bit ragged.

An excellent way to strengthen your own manuscript is to go through it, page by page, seeking out the adverbs. Once you find an adverb, see if you can show the reader the same thing using action instead. Sometimes, you can't use action and the adverb usage stands. That's fine. A little cayenne pepper makes the dish interesting. Most of the time, though, you can push yourself beyond what's easy and develop the skill to show rather than tell.


  1. Excellent post! I tend to use quite a few adverbs and a ton of passive voice in the first draft, just to get the story out. I also will have large blocks of dialogue and large blocks of description. LOL Then I go through the manuscript and edit as much as I can out of it. =)

  2. I do a Find for "ly" and then see if I can replace it with action. =)


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