Monday, August 24, 2015

Mr. Cizak's Writing Tips #4 -- The War on Adverbs!

I don't know when the war on adverbs started. I know it made me paranoid as hell for many years. During revision, I would weed out any and all adverbs until there wasn't a single -ly word to be found in the manuscript. It eventually polluted my ability to enjoy older fiction by the likes of Jim Thompson and Phil K. Dick. Holy shit, those guys used a lot of adverbs!

In recent years, I've backed off my own fear of adverbs. What it comes down to is this: How relevant is the action you're describing? If it's not terribly crucial to the plot, if it doesn't add some insight to the entire story, an occasional adverb isn't such a terrible thing. Of course, it's always better to be concrete, to say, instead of:

She balanced on one foot precariously.

Simply say:

She balanced on one foot.

If she's on one foot, we know it's a precarious situation.

If you're describing a character's attributes, it's always better to be specific rather than general, mostly to help illustrate the character for the reader. Thus:

Her face twitched nervously.

Should probably be:

The side of her lip looked as though someone had attached a fishing hook to it and yanked it upwards every other second or so.

BUT, if that twitch isn't so important to the rest of the story, if it's not going to reveal more about the character, then go ahead and use the abridged sentence.

The key to adverbs is like the key to just about everything else in life -- Moderation. Don't overdo it, but don't ban them from your work completely.

(I will do one more post in this series next week and that's it, I'm not giving away all the secrets!)


  1. Sensible advice. Moderation in all things--including use of adverbs. I still use them when I consider it appropriate. However, I have had to deal with some editors who were ruthless in cutting.

  2. Totally agree with this, and great examples. The very first time I heard this "rule" in a writing group, I wondered about it. I knew that previous best-selling authors had no problem using adverbs, even those ending in "ly." I am careful about using them, though. Because as you and Jacqueline say, moderation is a good thing. Usually. (Sorry, couldn't resist the modifier.)

  3. Yes indeed. I also sympathize with how this obsession with adverbs ruins the fiction experience.

  4. I'm glad you're speaking up on this. Adverbs have their place! Love your examples.