Kill the Adverbs!

by Kathleen Ewing

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I am not a cheerleader. In fact, I dislike the cheerleader mentality that motivates someone to sit on the sidelines shouting empty phrases while others do the job. Whether I'm writing a feature article for a demanding editor, or polishing a piece of fiction for the third time, don't tell me "Go! Fight! Win!" Give me a coach who can provide the practical tools I need to get the job done. Like a double left jab, a jump shot from the top of the key or a drag bunt for a suicide squeeze play.

For a writer, those tools should look something like this:

1. Read aloud what you have written. You will hear this advice repeatedly. Do it. You may think you have a good feel for the flow of words, your own words in particular. You can't judge until you hear the words spoken. Listen for the rough spots, for the content that doesn't make sense, or for the sentence that doesn't get the message across with enough impact.

2. "If you see an adverb, kill it." Mark Twain offered that advice. The reader doesn't want to watch your characters walking quickly or hear them speaking softly. Pick a verb with some starch in its shorts. Make characters jog, march or stride. Make them mumble, mutter or whisper. If you begin with a hairy-legged verb, you won't be tempted to accomplish the action slowly, urgently or hopefully.

3. While you're at it, kill ninety percent of your adjectives as well. We've all read sentences that have at least two adjectives hitched onto every noun. At some point in our careers, we've written a few ourselves. "The lush, slender green leaves contrasted with the rough, peeling light brown bark of the gigantic old sycamore tree and the crisp, unbroken cerulean blue of the bright, early morning summer sky." The sentence sounds like a steam locomotive unable to pick up speed because there are too many freight cars between it and the caboose. A noun is the engine of the sentence. If a noun can't pull its load, find a stronger engine. You may think you are painting a vivid scene for your readers, but hooking on the adjectives derails the train of thought.

4. If you're still in the mood for murder, off the italics and the bold type. Find a way to put the emphasis in the proper place with your word selection, not with format gimmicks. The same holds true for the exclamation point. If you have a character say "Wow" or "Hey" or even "Damn," is it any less effective if you omit the exclamation point? Reading a paragraph with half a dozen exclamation marks is like driving through downtown at rush hour. Stop! Go! Stop! Go! Stop! Go!

5. Parentheses are another prime target for elimination. I have a friend who laces her writing with parentheses or with dashes bracketing parenthetical clauses as each new thought occurs to her. On many occasions, I have had to read her writing two or even three times to understand the message she is attempting to communicate. You may think parenthetically and speak that way. Most people do. In writing, it is a disruptive device, sidetracking your reader from one thought to the next and then switching them back to the main line again. Mental whiplash. When polishing a piece, find a way to rephrase your writing to incorporate all those parenthetic points which occurred to you as you were writing the initial draft.

6. Do you need that that? "It was then that he decided that he would jump ship." If you read the sentence aloud, you realize how clunky it feels, like wearing cowboy boots to perform a ballet. The words lose their dramatic impact as well. The test for an extraneous "that" is simple enough. If you can purge it without harming the meaning of the sentence, you will improve the flow.

7. Listen for colloquialisms, those little idioms you picked up as a kid in the Bronx or Baton Rouge or International Falls, phrases that have become habitual for you but clutter your writing without adding value. I once edited a nonfiction book where in four instances the writer admonished readers to do something "so as not to" cause something else to happen. While the writer may be comfortable with that phrase, to most readers it is an unfamiliar speed bump disrupting the flow of words.

8. Listen for repetitions. "Problematic" is a popular word these days. If you use it to describe every other awkward or challenging situation in your essay, it becomes boring. At some point, the reader will yawn and toss your article or story aside, feeling like a grade school student learning a new word by rote. If it is difficult for you to pick up on those words you have used too often, ask someone else to read your piece before you submit it.

9. Check your grammar. How many times have you read the phrase "one another" instead of "each other" in a scenario involving two people? Imagine the confusion the readers of your romance novel would experience if you used that phrase when you had led them to believe there were only two people in that bedroom. Don't expect an editor to catch all your blunders any more than you expect your computer's spell checker to catch the use of a properly spelled word in the wrong context.

10. If you have never done so, sit down with a comprehensive and current grammar text. Read it from cover to cover, now, before you go any further in your career, before you make some slipshod mistake and have to look at it in print for the rest of your life. Boring, you say? As with any other professional, a writer must know and understand the tools of the trade. You are a writer, aren't you? Or do you want to remain a cheerleader?

Related Articles:

How to Write Really Bad Fiction and Enjoy the Benefits of Rapid Rejection, by Hank Quense

Copyright © 2011 Kathleen Ewing
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kathleen Ewing is an award-winning freelance writer from Arizona. She has written feature articles for Art Calendar, American Falconry, Bend of the River, Hobby Farms, and Trailblazer magazines, and online for FundsforWriters and Writing for Dollars. Visit her site at


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