MAY 2007 COLUMN
This month we have a guest writer: Norma Howell.
by Norma Howell
Adverbs are those cute little "ly" things that modify verbs and adjectives and are—softly, sweetly and systematically
ruining your story! Should you kill them all? Nah, just most of them. You can let a couple of good ones hang around
if they promise to keep their place.
The problem with adverbs is that they weaken the verb while changing it. For
instance, look at the verb "to run." It's acceptable to say "he ran" but not very interesting. Run needs a modifier
to show how he ran, and that's why an author says something like "He ran swiftly." Instead of modifying "to run" with
an adverb, look in your thesaurus for a stronger way to say "run." How about one of these: he raced; he dashed; he sprinted;
or running at full speed, he crashed into the fence. All those phrases are more descriptive than "he ran swiftly."
characters talk to each other, avoid adverbs and look for a more descriptive verb. "She whispered" is better than "she
said softly." "He shouted" or "He yelled"-- NOT "He said angrily." Adverbs misused in speech tags are the worst criminals
of all, because they can make your characters sound downright silly. Here is one extreme example:
"I love you,"
she said lovingly.
"And I love you," he replied sincerely.
"Why don't you kiss me?" she asked sweetly.
he replied grinningly.
Grinningly? That's another problem with adverbs. A writer can create them by adding "ly," thus
giving us even more of the sneaky little things. I know the foregoing example is somewhat overboard, but we've all seen adverbs
in speech tags. Kill 'em, I say! While you're at it, kill most of the speech tags, too. If the reader can tell
who is speaking by what is happening in your scene, don't tag dialog at all—but I digress.
Seek active verbs
instead of the common ones. Everybody walks, but how? Do they stumble, stagger, limp, slog, march, stamp, stalk, mince, amble
or skip? I don't think "walk slowly" is so bad, and I might leave that in –provided I can't find a stronger phrase. I want to show, not tell. So what do you think about "head down, he
staggered under the weight of his pack." Better? The reader can tell he's walking slowly, and I didn't use an adverb. If
you want to say "he walked away angrily," ask yourself how you can show instead of tell. Have him spin around and "stalk
away" or "stomp off," and be darned sure he slams that door on his way out. He might turn instead of whirl or spin, but please
don't let him "turn angrily."
In a romance, "she touched him gently" might appear. "She caressed him" is stronger,
or the author could use "gentle" instead. Example: "Her soft, gentle fingers smoothed his fevered brow." Isn't
that much better than "she touched him gently?"
Norma Howell lives in California. She was a professional secretary for forty years, writing
procedure manuals and managing the medical staff office in a community hospital and the adjacent clinic. Before that
she was assistant editor of a school newspaper. Now in retirement, she devotes her time to writing both fiction and non-fiction.