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Editing with adverbs

by Davina on January 25, 2011

Adverbs will make or break a story

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition*: “An adverb is a word that qualifies, limits, describes, or modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.” Adverbs are used to modify a phrase or a clause, helping writers illustrate “how”, “when”, “where” and to what degree an action took place.

The following is a short list of adverbs that are commonly used:

Really, quickly, always, truly, usually, typically, very, closely, fairly, happily, often, carefully

Adverbs will enhance a story when used in moderation. When used excessively, the writing takes on an overly dramatic tone, perhaps even sounding preachy. Plus, overuse of descriptive words leads to redundant phrasing and the appearance of a writer whose repertoire is lacking.

Tips for reducing adverb use

Verbs are capable of describing action without depending on adverbs. However, adverbs are valuable tools for adding emphasis and clarifying details, and when they are used purposefully a writer has unlimited options to describe the action. Let’s take a look at how to use adverbs.

Example 1: If a writer wishes to communicate that someone has hung up the phone, there are a number of ways in which to do so.

They could write, “Catherine hung up the phone” or “Catherine quickly hung up the phone.”

Both are succinct, but vague. If Catherine quickly hung up the phone, the writer could have meant that she was in a hurry or she was angry.

Perhaps if she was angry, “Catherine slammed down the phone.”

Example 2: Avoid redundant phrases such as tiny little, which could be replaced with minuscule or just tiny.

Example 3: Intensify the action without using an adverb. “She ran swiftly across the room” could be rewritten as, “She sprinted across the room.”

Adverbs — less is more

When you undergo the editing process, focusing on your use of adverbs will challenge your writing ability and expand your repertoire.

There are a variety of ways to choose how to describe an action without getting wordy — less is more. And in the end, when you do want to emphasize something specific, it will be more obvious to the reader because it doesn’t have to compete against other unnecessarily exaggerated notions.

How do you remove the clutter from your writing?

Are you really aware of an adverb you use unconsciously? Can you guess what mine is?

*The Chicago Manual of Style is an affiliate link.

Photo credit: Emborg

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Mandy Allen January 26, 2011 at 3:31 am

Gosh, I need to go back and read my posts now to see if I do this! ‘Tiny little’ and such double uses are called tautology (saying the same thing twice). Great post, thanks.

Enjoy the journey.

Mandy Allen´s last blog post ..Don’t over commit

Vered | Blogger for Hire January 26, 2011 at 11:03 am

Removing clutter from writing. I like that. I hate clutter in every other area of my life – I should (really haha) get rid of it in my writing too.

Barbara Swafford January 27, 2011 at 3:10 am

Hi Davina,

Thank you for the great lesson and reminder. I have a tendency to use “really” a lot and some words which are redundant. It’s not until I go through the editing process I catch most of them.

I really (:) ) like your suggestion of “less is more”. Although it may take more time to edit out the unnecessary words, I think our readers appreciate it.
Barbara Swafford´s last blog post ..Repeat After Me

Wendi Kelly-Life's Little Inspirations,Blue Sun Media January 27, 2011 at 9:42 am

It’s amazing how these tricky little words – and others-clog up our writing. In the editing process of our book, I went back using the search and find key and looked for specific words that I knew were trouble makers. Words like just, really, starting to, began to, are also words that cause trouble and I stay on the look out for.

Susan Deborah January 28, 2011 at 12:34 am

Hi Davina:

I hardly realise that I am prone to redundant phrasing until my Supervisor points that out to me. Writing a dissertation makes me realise the different nuances of writing. Sometimes in the process of unclogging the clutter, I forget what point I am trying to make. Editing my writing is my greatest bane. But I must say that after the process of editing, I like to see the end result. It is almost like a face that glows after a facial. I am still working in minimising my errors. I don’t know when I will be able to write an error free passage.

Thanks for this post.

Joy always,
Susan Deborah´s last blog post ..The concept of getting dirty

Davina January 28, 2011 at 1:41 am

Thanks Mandy.
I know! I catch myself with the “tiny little” trick too. :-) Thanks for adding the term “tautology” here. I didn’t know that’s what it was called.

You gotta love those “shoulds” :-)

You’re welcome. I use “really” a lot too. And “just”… I guess we tend to write the way we talk. I usually don’t notice until after I read through it all again. It’s good practice to try to cut words after you have your thoughts down. Fun, too :)

I know, isn’t it? That’s a great idea to use the search and find function to clear this up. That way you don’t have to be too concerned while you are writing. You can just go with the flow and fix later.

Oh, I love your facial analogy. It’s a nice feeling to look back on your work after you’ve cleaned it up… at least I enjoy it. I suppose all writers have their favourite phases of writing, though. What is the topic of your dissertation?

Hilary January 28, 2011 at 7:10 am

Hi Davina .. welcome back .. I really need to go to a grammar school – there we go ‘really’ … but I am picking up things to correct – I know I probably seriously need to go back to school for a good dose of grammar.

Certainly when the brain is less entangled and I’m concentrating on one thing .. that just flows out, then I’m happier with the result, and can more easily get the editing done ..

Your writing is stunning though .. I hope you’re doing that too .. how’s the story?

Cheers – enjoy the weekend .. Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..Food – To More Good times and Fond Memories- with some history thrown in for good measure – Part 2

Linda January 28, 2011 at 11:10 am

Hi Davina,

This is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to as I write. I just try to make it make sense, and flow well. I do go back and edit, change words, combine short sentences, etc. I’ll have to look through some of my work and see if I have fallen into the adverb trap.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? January 30, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Hmmm, Davina, I think I’ve been prone to overuse of adverbs a time or two. I had a professor once who was a stickler for this, and did sort of break me of my use of “really.” But it still shows up in my writing from time to time (really). So thanks for the reminder. You’ve really and truly and absolutely and magnificently helped me (tee hee).
Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog post ..Isadora Duncan Wannabe Syndrome And Scarves

Jasmine January 31, 2011 at 9:23 am

I haven’t given the adverb thing much thought, but it makes perfect sense. Redundancy is a deal-breaker for me when it comes to reading any novel or piece of writing. The biggest thing for me is overworking the descriptions because I want my readers to really understand what I am talking about. Thanks for the tips!
Jasmine´s last blog post ..For Personalized Gift Baskets

Davina January 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Hi Hilary,
Thank you. LOL… really? :-) You’ve got the right idea to let things just flow. You can clean up the words later. I haven’t been writing lately, to be honest. Been doing more editing than writing. However as for the story; it is being put on hold while another one is beginning the editing process.

Hi Linda.
I think you’re like most writers. Putting too much thought into this at the beginning stops your flow. However, going back over what you’ve written would be a great exercise. I love seeing how just changing a few words makes such a difference.

Hi Patty.
LOL, I think the more passionate a person is the greater their tendency to use adverbs. It’s that enthusiasm shining through, big time! I’m REALLY glad you’ve enjoyed these helpful hints.

Hi Jasmine.
You’re welcome :) Yes, redundancy can put your readers to sleep. Or if you’re using too many adverbs or emphasis on description it can sound like you’re talking AT your readers or preaching to them.

Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes January 31, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Hi Davina,

I had an English professor who was quite good. Brutal, but good. She hated adverbs and would say, “Adverbs are for grade school. This is college, people!”

She was helped tighten up my writing! Thanks for the reminder!
Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes´s last blog post ..Micfo

patricia January 31, 2011 at 9:12 pm

In my Master’s Thesis #1, I was severely reprimanded for my use of adverbs and had to remove 50% of them before the committee would read it – they kept saying this is not a literary exercise –

I have also noticed that my youngest daughter’s friends are stuck on using minimalistic language and very few adjectives or adverbs – I think they are rather boring story tellers – then they roll their eyes or shrug their shoulders Just makes me laugh

Chris Edgar February 1, 2011 at 11:51 am

I use Hemingway’s technique of eliminating all adjectives and adverbs and being thoroughly plastered as I write. Just kidding — I don’t drink. And I don’t overindulge in adverbs either. Really.

Davina February 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

Hi Delana.
You’re welcome. Your teacher *really* – LOL – made you aware of adverbs! In moderation, I feel they have a place. Sounds like she was encouraging your class to reach for new words.

Hi Patricia.
Yes, that’s a good point. They have their place; they *are* are rather artful way of expressing something. That’s interesting those younger folk use few adjectives — I would have thought it would be the other way around.

Hi Chris.
LOL. I think you’d probably use a lot of descriptors if you were plastered while you write :-) Really!

Sara February 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm


This was very helpful! As you know, I tend to be wordy. I will start looking for the times when I’m overusing my adverbs.

Thank you:~)
Sara´s last blog post ..Feeling Lucky

Davina February 7, 2011 at 12:56 am

Hi Sara.
You’re welcome. Be wordy when you are writing, though. Let it all flow. — I think you’re good at that. You can go back to tweaking it after you get all your thoughts down. I find that during the editing pass, that’s when even more insights show themselves, as you find new ways to say things.

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