From the Editor’s Desk: Adverbial Traps


Once more, I’ll endeavor to go some of my (somewhat) informed opinion, this time regarding -ly adverbs. I recently elucidated a bit about the pitfalls of using these lovely (see what I did there) adverbs in conjunction with dialogue. He said rudely. She remarked kindly. They laughed loudly. On the surface it seems like these -ly modifiers help the reader to understand how an action is happening. But I say trusting your writing is more important than definitively (I am on a roll) telling your reader how things are happening.

Outside the realm of dialogue, the old -ly’s are much more acceptable. He moved silently. He grabbed it quickly. She moved gracefully. Here they can make things a bit more clear when describing an action. And sometimes you can’t avoid them. But what you can avoid is letting them stand on their own, or using them as an easy out:

-He moved silently, like a olive-drab panther, barely making a noise in the brush.

-He grabbed it so quickly it was in his hands in the space of a blink.

-She moved with precision and grace, every inch the archetype of a ballerina.

The three sentences above probably feel am little more descriptive than the simple   -ly sentences. These are quick simple fixes, but on occasion and -ly adverb isn’t necessary. If you simply (Somebody stop me) say He sat, in the right context, surrounded by effective description, it can be more powerful than any adverbial modifier in existence, and makes the reader feel more involved in the story.

The crux of the argument is the same argument against over-describing a characters physical attributes. You want the reader to have a personal experience when he reads your work. Taking him or her by the hand and describing, to a T, the exact and complete physical appearance of your character, I,or any other reader, can’t allow our imaginations to stretch out. The same applies to the -ly adverbs. A little physical description is good, helps create an image for the reader. Like a coloring book you supply the lines, and let the reader fill in the color. Again, same concept with the -ly words.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Trust your writing. Give the readers some credit. Most of us are smart enough not to ruin your narrative if you let us fill in some of the blanks.

Once more, this is my opinion, for what its worth. Take it. leave it. But there it is.

Signing Off.


3 thoughts on “From the Editor’s Desk: Adverbial Traps

  1. Ah the -ly words, tricky and yet ever so tempting, they sneak their way into writing…causing the author to question and agonize over every word. 🙂 great post. I do so enjoy your from the editor’s desk series. 🙂 keep it up! (Please?)


  2. Whenever I attempt to incorporate a rule, such as avoid the to be verb, avoid -ly adverbs, go to omicient POV,I find the word count invariably increases. Because I need the word count that becomes a positive. I belong to three writer’s groups in Cuenca Ecuador and they promote tight short writing. The use of the -ly adverb promotes brevity. I remain quiet in these discussions and focus on pace. When writing, brief or expanded (detailed) I rely on the beat or pace of the scene or my preference.
    Enjoys your blog — Mike


  3. I used to do so well cutting out my adverbs. They’ve leaked back into my writing, like a case of the runs you just can stop, and it’s been all the shittier as a result.


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