A guide to editing adverbs

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I first read this quote I was confused and a little defensive. What’s wrong with adverbs? They’re not hellish—that’s how you show what’s happening instead of telling. And if there’s one writing rule to follow, it’s show don’t tell.

Well my friends, I lived like this for a while before realizing adverbs tell instead of show. Meaning, an adverb modifies verbs which are the driving force of action or the showing part of the sentence. Once I had this lightbulb moment, I went back through my writing and discovered adverbs peppered everywhere! The biggest culprit was an adverb behind said. He said jokingly. She said tersely. They said quietly.

At first I tried to defend myself. Well how will the reader know that the character is angry if I don’t write, she said loudly and passionately? I have to keep it. There’s no other way. Then over time, as I read more and more about writing theory, it clicked. You don’t need adverbs to establish mood or intent.

There is a myriad of ways to show someone is angry. Try writing about their body language or use a simile to characterize their voice. Select words with connotations of aggression or annoyance when writing dialogue. That is showing and not telling. This strengthens your story.

Whether you already know about the hellscape of adverbs or you’re still learning, it helpful to review your work for places where you can eliminate an adverb to strengthen the sentence. Below is a guide for locating and removing adverbs from your writing.  

Looking for a refresher on adverbs? Check out this article from Merriam-Webster.

1.       Search and find

Ctrl+F, Command+F, or the Find command will be your best friend in locating adverbs. Try searching for ly, very, and really. The search for ly is helpful as it will capture any word ending in –ly, which is what most adverbs end in. I find it useful for my writing as I sometimes slip in an adverb in places other than dialogue. In fact, I found two places in this blog post where I used an unnecessary adverb! (I deleted them if you’re trying to find them.)

2.       Delete it

Once you’ve located the adverb, delete it and see how it changes the sentence.

Example: She smiled happily at the picture of her husband.

Is the sentence still readable? Is the sentiment or point of the sentence still clear? Then delete that adverb and move onto the next one! Deleting a word without changing the structure or purpose means you didn’t need it.

If deleting the adverb alters the sentence so it’s no longer clear or the purpose is lost, try one of the next steps.

3.       Choose a different word

If you’re at this step it means deleting the adverb interrupted the flow of your sentence. Before you restructure, consider choosing a different word for the one that the adverb is modifying.

In the below example, the sentence makes little sense if I remove the adverb. Rather than rearranging the entire sentence, try selecting a different word for talked (the verb the adverb is modifying).

Example

Original sentence: He talked quietly in case he was overheard.

Edited sentence: He mumbled in case he was overheard.

Still not working? Head on down to the next step!

4.       Restructure

So you tried removing the adverb and choosing a different word for the one it modified and still no dice. Time to restructure that sentence.

You can restructure a sentence by:

  • Rearranging the order of words
  • Choosing new verbs and adjectives
  • Adding in a new image, simile, or additional description
  • A combination of all the above!  

Example:

Original sentence: She walked quickly to escape the feeling of dread.

Edited sentence: Dread swelled in her chest and she rushed towards the house.

There you have it! A guide to locating and removing adverbs to help tighten up your writing. As with all art, there may be instances where “breaking the rules” benefits the piece more than sticking to them. Check out this post from the Read series where Robin McKinley uses adverbs to her advantage.

In the meantime, keep checking for ways to do without the adverb. I promise it won’t be as hellish as you think.

Are there any adverbs out there you struggle to remove from your work? Or are there any instances in which you feel an adverb is well deserved? Leave a comment or tweet me @glcubel_writes!  

Check out this quick guide with tips for editing adverbs in your #writing.