Dear Author, Adverbs are Not Your Friend! Love, Your Editor

Adverbs are not your friend
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The author's mantra? "Show, don't tell."

Look at any successful author’s books and you can count the number of adverbs on maybe two hands. The reason: adverbs ‘tell’. They tell the reader how to interpret how characters are feeling and what their emotions are. As soon as you ‘tell’ the reader all these fine details, guess what, the reader has no reason to become engaged in your story; they may even put down the book and not bother to finish it. Think about it:


“Thank you so much for your help,” she said sincerely.

“Are you all right? she asked worriedly.

“No way! That isn’t possible,” he said incredulously.

If your characters’ words don’t convey their emotions, then this is where you should be putting your energy!

That said, what I often find is that the vast majority of authors, including debut authors, are actually quite good at “showing” – far more than they give themselves credit for. Despite this fact, they will still use adverbs in addition to their effective “showing” language, presumably leaning on the additional “telling” adverbs simply from lack of experience with the tried and true mantra: “Show don’t tell.”

Overuse of adverbs is a major issue in online writing sites and forums. Stephen King is far from alone in lamenting the overuse of adverbs. And any literary agent will tell you the slush pile grows exponentially as the overuse of adverbs climbs.

A few of many adverbs to avoid:

inquiringly doubtfully bitterly worriedly
sincerely incredulously flauntingly thinly
wanly shrilly excitedly gloomily
haltingly curiously emphatically earnestly

Apart from telling the reader how to interpret a character’s reactions and emotions (which then means the reader cannot engage personally with the scene), the use of adverbs is, frankly, a veiled insult to the reader. It’s like you’re telling your reader, “I assume you’re incapable of understanding what my character is feeling, so I will earnestly and emphatically spell it out for you.”

My advice: use adverbs sparingly and for real effect. If a character has just gone through an emotional wringer and his wife wants to comfort him, it’s quite all right to write:  “Melissa reached out and touched his cheek tenderly.” This statement invites an emotional response and connection from the reader. Similarly, you can achieve real impact with: “As the battle raged around him, he stared at his hands morosely, knowing they had taken the life of another human being.” These examples use adverbs with a sophistication that “Brad asked curiously” or “She said provocatively” do not have. In the latter examples, the fact that Brad is asking a question makes it clear that he is curious about something, and the provocative way that “she” speaks to another character should be apparent in the words she speaks.

Patronizing your readers only ends one way. By respecting your readers—and your work—you can ensure that your storytelling allows them to engage emotionally and want to accompany the characters on their whole journey. A sure fire way to do so is by avoiding adverbs that dictate their emotional responses. Help your readers engage their imaginations as they read your story.

Writing a novel is a true labour of love. Reading it should also be a labour of love. Ditch the extraneous adverbs and you will give your readers a journey they can enjoy.

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Mary Metcalfe, MS is a ‘seasoned’ editor who was formerly Senior Editor of the Statistics Canada Daily/Quotidien, has edited several Government of Canada reports, is a multi-published best-selling fiction author and has edited hundreds of fiction and non-fiction titles for FriesenPress and private authors. She lives in the foothills of the Laurentians, Quebec, with her husband, dog and three pampered cats.

Edited by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editing and Illustration Coordinator