Damn the -ly Words (Adverbs) in Your Writing: Learn to Show Don’t Tell

by Kendra Bonnett on July 5, 2010

catnav-alchemy-activePost #16 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

grammar-lessonAs a writer, do the comments on Facebook or someone’s blog make you want to pull your hair out by the roots. I’m talking about the grammar. If so, you’re in good company. I don’t think a day goes by that some egregious spelling or grammar mistake doesn’t catch my eye.

Maybe that’s why Stephen King’s adverb rant really resonates with me. Note: This is not an entirely new Writing in Five Writer’s Quick Tip. Matilda and I recorded this piece back in February, but now that we’ve graduated to video, we decided to convert our Stephen King on Adverbs piece to a video format.

At first blush, a video on adverbs sounds as though it might be a grammar lesson. Well it isn’t. I mean, pick up any grammar book, and you’ll see the adverb explained…thoroughly and convincingly. Sorry, I couldn’t overlook the opportunity to spread a little of the adverb disease. But, in fact, the adverb is a legitimate part of speech. So what’s wrong with adverbs?

It’s a disease of overuse and abuse. That’s why King and other writers have made adverbs their bugaboo. So here’s your real lesson: Just because something is technically correct doesn’t mean you want to make it a mainstay of your writing.

Despite the grammar manuals, the adverb isn’t just another part of speech. The adverb is a crutch. It’s even a contributor in the heinous purple prose syndrome. And you don’t want to fall into that trap.

The adverb isn’t a grammar bomb…it’s a style bomb. And that’s why we find it cursed in the writing books of Stephen King and William Zinsser.

“Most adverbs are unnecessary, wrote Zinsser.” (p. 94, On Writing Well, first edition) You shouldn’t need more directive than that, but if you must, Zinsser goes on to explain: “Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly–’blare’ connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly–there is no other way to clench teeth.”

You know, one of the basic lessons of writing is show…don’t tell. In the case of adverb-rich descriptive dialogue tags, we are telling and not showing. Don’t believe me? Check these out:

  • “Yes,” he said fervently.
  • “It’s in the refrigerator,” she rambled vaguely.
  • “I wonder,” she said pensively.
  • “Hell, no,” he shouted angrily.

In every one of these examples, more detail could not only have replaced the adverb but made the writing more interesting…more compelling. And that, after all, is what we’re all striving for in our writing.

My Writing Pet Peeve

Actually this is more than a pet peeve…this is just down right wrong. But it’s one of the most pervasive errors I see online, which is why it has my hackles up.

When you have a compound modifier that consists of an adverb and an adjective, you DON’T hyphenate. So if you break the first rule (and use an adverb) please don’t break the second rule and hyphenate. Write “brightly painted door,” not “brightly-painted door.” Write “quickly abandoned position,” not “quickly-abandoned position.”

And that’s quite enough lecturing from me. I hope you like this video about adverbs. I think you’ll raise your writing at least a whole notch once you start replacing your adverbs with greater detail, more emotion and deeper character development.

Want to Know More About How We Make our Memoir and Writing Videos?

Then get thee over to the short piece I posted on the Story Circle Network’s Telling HerStories blog. Here I share a couple of video-making tips and share the mistake I made on the video above. Why did I share my mistake? To make the point that while you want your work to be good and your content to be useful, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. In this case, by the time I realized my little error (one that didn’t impact the content at all) I already had 25 views over on YouTube, and I wasn’t about to give those up.

Follow the link to SCN’s Telling HerStories, and you’ll also find a list of the equipment Matilda and I use to create our videos. You might be surprised to learn how affordable it is.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Writing Tip: Even Muscle Verbs Have Their Gentle Side — Memoir Writing Blog
July 12, 2010 at
Review: Under the Dome, by Stephen King « The Jason Jack
April 2, 2012 at

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Weidener July 5, 2010 at

Thanks for some important writing tips, although getting the story on paper is paramount. After that, a good copy editor is a wise investment as is picking up a copy of Strunk and White and/or The Chicago Manual of Style.

Kendra Bonnett July 5, 2010 at

Getting the story on paper is certainly the most important step. Without it, we wouldn’t need to concern ourselves with grammar and style. And yes, Matilda and I are both big fans of Strunk & White.

What we find most instructive in researching our Writing in Five Quick Tips is learning the goals great authors have for their writing as well as their bugaboos and pet peeves.

Kay Tee July 6, 2010 at

I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me find those pesky adverbs — as well as a lot of other weak writing problems. I love it!

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