Recognizing and Eliminating Adverbs in Your Writing

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Don't use adverbs!

Ok, that's all I should have to say on this topic, but I'm sure most of you have questions, so I will expand.

Why Can't I Use Adverbs?

When we use adverbs (those lovely -ly words and a few others like very), we weaken our sentences.


Because it's seen as a crutch.  Rather than take the time to select a strong verb that says the same thing, you copped out and went with an adverb.  Active verbs provide a stronger sense of the action and the story.

  • She spoke softly as she walked gingerly out of the baby's room.
  • She whispered as she tiptoed out of the baby's room.

In the first sentence, what are the adverbs?
  • softly, gingerly

In the second sentence, I changed spoke softly to the verb, whispered, and I changed walked gingerly to tiptoed.

The second sentence provides a stronger image of the woman as she leaves the baby's room, with the added bonus of reducing the word count.

How Do I Get Rid of Adverbs?

Once you become accustomed to eliminating adverbs, getting rid of them will get easier.  Until then, follow these procedures:

First, perform a search for adverbs in your document.  Common ones are:

  • very
  • always
  • never
  • words with -ly endings

When you find very, always, and never delete them.  Your sentence's meaning should not change in most cases. If deleting the word doesn't work, look for a better word. I found the image of the list of substitutions for "very" on Pinterest, which offers many guides to eliminating adverbs.  Note:  Image used with permission from Jessica M. H. Smith.

When you find -ly words, pick a stronger verb that means the same thing as the verb+adverb combination.

But I Like Adverbs

Many people enjoy using adverbs.  They provide a melodic flow to our words, but today's writing world frowns on the use of adverbs.  If you want to succeed in your writing, eliminating adverbs will help.

When Can I Use Adverbs?

I knew a guy in college who I nicknamed Basic Tim.  Why?  He used the word "basically" in most of his conversations.  In fact, he might use basic or basically several times in one discussion.  If your character speaks with adverbs, like Tim, then  leave them in the dialogue. It develops your character.

Another reason you might keep an adverb is the overall sentence structure. Sometimes, removing the adverb creates an awkward sentence.  In that case, leave it. As long as you are aware of the need to limit your use of adverbs, you can use a few.

But in most cases...

Don't use adverbs.

This post is part of a series on what to look for while critiquing or editing yours or someone else's writing.


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