By Kelley Lindberg
[I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because most bots are boring, but bots that argue with you about grammar are disturbingly sexy.]
At some point in just about every writing workshop or conference, someone reminds someone else that adverbs (those notorious “-ly” words) are the devil’s own tools and should be hacked mercilessly from every manuscript. (You noticed I used an adverb there, right?)
Question: Do editors really hate adverbs?
Short answer: Pretty much, yeah.
Long answer: When it comes to adverbs being verboten, those immortal words of Captain Barbarosa leap to mind: “They’re not really rules. They’re more like guidelines.”
So here’s the thing about adverbs: They aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. It’s just that over-dependence on them can begin to look lazy. Or redundant. Or sloppy. Or inaccurate. Or clichéd. Or… fill in the blank with your own adjective. Adverbs are handy because they can modify a verb. That’s okay, except that it might let you get away with a less-than-stellar verb. Not okay.
Another reason to avoid adverbs is that if you use a word like “suspiciously,” you missed an opportunity to describe the body language that would have shown us the character’s “suspiciousness,” like narrowed eyes or crossed arms. Body language is far more interesting, unique, and personal than just an adverb that feeds us the generic emotion. I’d rather see how that character exudes suspicion, rather than having the author hand me the shortcut word “suspiciously.” That’s not visual at all, and I want to SEE that character!
If body language doesn’t get the job done, then interaction with another character might. By describing one character’s reaction to another, you can give us a better picture of both of their emotional states, which is far more intriguing than some over-used generic adverb.
The occasional adverb is fine – great even – if it truly is the best way to illuminate a sentence. But mix it up by using unexpected but spot-on verbs, participles, body language, dialogue, and interaction.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said through tight lips.
That’s better, but can we do more with her body language to show what’s really going on here?
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said, slipping her hand to the hilt of her dagger.
Now let’s try showing some body language as well as some interaction with another character:
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