Tenth Commandment

Thou Shalt Not Overuse Adverbs

It seems a little like favoritism to grant “adverbs” their own commandment, but they really do demand special attention. We momentarily spoke of them in regard to repetition, and now we speak of them in regard to redundancy and misplacement.

An adverb is redundant when the action it is modifying is sufficient to express the intended meaning.  The phrase, “John sulked sadly,” adds an unnecessary modifier (not to mention a distracting alliteration) and not having the adverb there at all is a better choice. Try a “search and replace” on all instances of “ly” in your manuscript in order to seek out these kinds of adverb redundancies.

You don’t want the reader to suspect that you depend on “ly” words to reveal what a character is feeling or to describe what they are doing. And this especially goes for how they are saying something. Verbs of attribution, like “said,” “asked” and “stated” are also great find targets. See if you have used an “ly” word after any of these and then consider whether the dialogue itself can carry the meaning, without the adverb being added (rewrite the dialogue with stronger descriptive words, if necessary).

In the scenario of misplaced adverbs, the problem is one of confusing and distracting the reader. Perhaps you have written, “She watched him read intently.” Do you mean that the woman watched intently as the man read? Do you mean that the man read intently as the woman watched him? You might argue that the adverb goes with the closest verb, but why put your reader at risk of pausing and considering this even for a second, disengaging them from the story?

Consider also the confusion with the placement of the word “only.” “Jane only receives packages on Thursdays.” Do we mean that packages only arrive on Thursdays? Do we mean that the only thing Jane does on Thursdays is to receive packages? Yes, your reader can figure it out, but why make them do that when what you really want readers to spend their brainpower on is figuring out what’s happening to the characters and the world they inhabit?

Of course, both redundant and misplaced adverbs are found ubiquitously in dialogue… and rightly so! People speak with less formality than when they write. So don’t hesitate to allow overused verbiage of any kind in dialogue (if it suits your character)… just keep your narration clean, clear, and sparsely littered by adverbs.


Bottom Line for FQP Submissions:

If you submit a manuscript that reveals persistent overuse of adverbs, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with reduced adverb use, or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the adverb overuse issues (typically from $50 – $200.)

Return to the Ten Commandments of Writing a Good Catholic Novel.