“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Ah, adverbs. They are so very badly (yep, there’s one now) maligned in modern creative writing courses. To hear some people talk about them, you’d think using them resulted in either a severe case of acne or eternal damnation. Maybe both.

What is an adverb? It’s a word that describes a verb, adjective or even another adverb. They have some perfectly (look, another one!) valid uses and can enhance your writing when properly (okay, I won’t) applied and not overdone.

Where many beginning writers get into trouble is when they use adverbs in dialogue tags instead of a descriptive verb. I suspect this arises more these days because of the opinion in certain quarters that the only acceptable dialogue tag is the Associated Press model. They limit tag verbs to “said,” with an occasional “asked” permitted, although that last would seem a bit redundant given the question mark.

As a result, beginners who are told this is the only way to write (rubbish!) will tack an adverb after the “said.” So, you get ““I hate you!’ Jane said loudly.” instead of ““I hate you!’ shouted Jane.” Can you hear how much stronger the second tag is than the first? And Jane can scream, screech, howl, and each verb carries a different nuance.

Using an adverb in a dialogue tag is an outdated way to write, and in the sixties gave rise to a delightful and challenging word game making “Tom Swifties.” Swifties are named after the young readers’ science fiction adventure series, in which an adverb was included in many dialogue tags.

To make a swiftie, you select an adverb that plays on the dialogue and makes a pun, as in:

“I’ve struck oil,” Tom said crudely.
“Buy me something to drink?” said Tom dryly.
“I collect fairy tales,” said Tom grimly.

Try it—it’s harder than it looks.

But getting back to adverbs, another case where they are used to the point of excess is as qualifiers: obviously, certainly, seemingly, clearly, simply.

Let’s face it, if someone “obviously” does something, it’s—well, obvious. So calling attention to it is redundant. About the only place you can use the word “obviously” is with internal monologue, when your character is talking to herself. Even then, it’s best avoided. Same with the others.


Adverbs weaken your prose. Observe:

John walked quietly along the corridor, looking quickly from one side to the other. A door just ahead of him opened suddenly.

Let’s replace the adverbs:

John crept along the corridor, glancing from side to side. Just ahead, a door sprang open.

Both say exactly the same thing, but the second passage contains a much more dramatic tone than the first.

So, should you ever use an adverb? Of course, but like hot pepper in your soup you want to use just enough to season your prose. If there’s absolutely (<–!) no other way to express your idea, go ahead and find a great adverb then use it with courage and dedication.

So, what's your thought?

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