Once upon a time, my literary agent found the one -ly adverb I snuck into my manuscript and made me ditch it
What?!? Why Shouldn’t I Use -ly Adverbs?
I know, I know. Many favorite novels have -ly adverbs up the ying-yang. (One fine example is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling). I think she gets a pass, however, because her books are so long that if she were to take out every -ly adverb and substitute it for something else, the novels would be so thick they’d no longer fit in our hands. So believe me when I say there are a time and a place for using them.
The reason why we writers are told to strike them from our work is that often it’s considered “lazy” writing and contributes to “telling” versus the ever-loved “showing.” For example, take a look at the two sentences below. Which one is more interesting to read?
Sandra set down the sword carefully while Frank wildly flailed his around merrily.
Sandra placed the sword on the ground as if it were made of glass while Frank flailed his weapon in choppy slices through the air and whooped with laughter.
Both sentences say the same thing, but one is much more descriptive and places an image in the reader’s mind. When we give the reader a strong description of what’s happening, the reader develops a picture in his or her mind and thus we are “showing” the reader what’s happening.
However, as you can see, one sentence is much shorter than the other. This is great news if you need to make your book longer, but unfortunate if your book already has more words than an unabridged dictionary. Luckily, you are in editing mode, which means you’ll be cutting a whole mess of words from your manuscript. This means you can use the highlight approach to -ly adverbs.
The Highlight Approach to -ly Adverbs
The “Find” function on your computer should be your best friend during the editing process. It most certainly will be when you enter “ly” into it and locate all those sneaky adverbs you hadn’t even realized you’d used. You may find your manuscript speckled with them! So…time to get down to eradicate most, if not all, of them.
First of all, examine your sentence. Is there a way to say it better? If not, move on. But here are a few secrets:
Most of the time, “suddenly” can be obliterated altogether. It can feel redundant. For example: Suddenly, Captain Hawk burst into the room. “Burst” already shows us that this movement is sudden. So writing Captain Hawk burst into the room has the same effect, only more succinct.
Maybe you’ve used a clichéd phrase such as “Slowly and deliberately…” Like any phrase that’s been overused, people just read over it and move onto the fresh part of the sentence. Marianne walked to the podium slowly and deliberately. Ok. So I can tell she’s not moving very quickly and perhaps that she’s doing it to make some kind of impact on the audience she’s about to acknowledge. If she is your protagonist, it would be more exciting to understand why she is walking this way to the podium. Marianne placed one foot in front of the other, legs heavy as cement, as she gauged how many people were in the audience. Here we see she is nervous. But let’s say she’s angry and determined to make an impact with her speech. Marianne took her time as she made her way to the podium. Nervous coughs and muffled whispers came from the audience. She failed to hide her smile. Now we see Marianne enjoys the audience’s discomfort. See how we can make “slowly and deliberately” become more specific?
You might be able to take out the -ly adverb without impacting your sentence at all. Angrily, she frowned. Do we need that adverb? She frowned. Nope. How about She pushed her way quickly through the crowd. What if we shorten it to She pushed through the crowd. Same thing, right? So try taking out the -ly adverb before changing your sentence. You may discover that’s all you need to do.
Using them in a dialog is okay! People occasionally use them in their speech (see what I did there?). “I really don’t like you.” or “Basically, I make pancakes that way.” If your character has a certain way of speaking, those -ly adverbs may come off as sounding natural. Just read the dialog out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound…well…weird.
Help! I Don’t Like Getting Rid of my -ly Adverbs
If you’re attached to those pesky but helpful adverbs, by all means, keep them. Will taking them out improve your story? YES! Will taking them out change your life? NO! A good story is a good story no matter what, and not all agents and editors detest them. In fact, you may find they work better in your story…maybe they add humor while shortening the sentence. Maybe it’s a one-word sentence to create an impact. For example: She spit out the sandwich. She didn’t like it. Obviously. This especially works well in first-person because you are using “internal dialog.” And remember, -ly adverbs are acceptable when a character is speaking. Even to him or herself.
I Need Practice
Don’t we all? Here are three sentences where I use -ly adverbs. Can you find a better way to say these sentences by eschewing the -ly adverbs?
He touched her face tenderly.
“I never loved you,” she said bitterly.
The child smiled sweetly and lightly pecked her cheek.
What can you come up with? Feel free to let me know in the “comments” section.
Now start using that “find” function on your computer to locate the -ly adverbs. Go through each sentence with care (or “carefully,” haha) to see if there’s a better way to describe what you’re letting the reader know. If there’s a stronger way, bravo! Most likely you’ve shifted into “showing” mode. Compare the old sentence with the new sentence. Can you feel the energy emanating from the fresh sentence? Course you can! Now get out there and see how many -ly adverbs you can discover. And watch your prose come alive.
This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018.
-Locating dull or repetitive words and cliche phrases that put readers to sleep
-Fixing pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion
-Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened
Oh no! But…I really, really, really love my -ly adverbs.