Friday 9 August 2019

Writers’ Questions: Why do (some) people really hate adverbs?

I’ve been blogging about Victorian literature and historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process, so, in my new series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some thoughts and advice about writing and the publication process.

This week, we’re talking adverbs, which, among the writing community, have been much debated, defended and maligned. [Note: all adverbs in this blog are in red so they’re easy to spot!]

When I first started writing more seriously, I was working on another (unsold) novel, also set in the Victorian period. I had just completed a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, and, while I was reading newer fiction too, Dickens, Brontë, Collins, Eliot et al. were my biggest influences. The first time I submitted chapters to a writing group, I was shocked to see my beautiful adverbs returned ringed in red. That’s how Victorians spoke, I thought. Didn’t my fellow writers understand that this was pastiche? And how could using a common part of speech be so objectionable?

Several years later, while I haven’t sworn off adverbs completely, I’m firmly in the ‘fewer adverbs is better’ camp. In this post I detail my personal and unscientific system for determining which adverbs survive the cut and why.

Could you be using a stronger verb? Often, I use adverbs while drafting as a placeholder for a more specific verb. Every time I come across an –ly adverb while editing I ask myself whether another verb could make the adverb void. Do you have someone ‘walking quickly’, when they could be ‘jogging’ or ‘striding’? Is someone ‘moving stealthily’, when they could be ‘creeping’?

Are you telling vs. showing? Another place where adverbs sneak into your manuscript is when you’re being lazy as a writer and telling readers how someone is feeling vs. allowing them to work this out themselves. Is a character doing something ‘sleepily’ when you could mention that they yawned? Is someone ‘cooking happily’ when they could be ‘singing while chopping vegetables’?

Is the adverb having the opposite effect to the intended one? The biggest culprits here are ‘suddenly’ and ‘immediately’, but any adverb that’s meant to connote speed will slow your prose down. ‘The door flew open,’ is much more dramatic than ‘The door flew open suddenly’, for example.

Is the adverb in narration or dialogue? I give myself more leeway to use adverbs in dialogue vs. in narration, especially since I write historical fiction. Some characters may speak in a verbose way. Particular adverbs may give speech a period flavour. But, even in dialogue, I review and consider each adverb. It’s important that each character doesn’t sound the same and that every word is there for a reason.

Do you have an adverb density problem? As with repeated words, repeated parts of speech get tedious to a reader’s ear. So it’s important to look at your prose at a paragraph/scene/chapter, as well as sentence, level. I love using the Hemingway Editor to assess how I’m doing with this. This free online tool is great in two ways when it comes to adverbs. First, it flags which words are adverbs for you—brilliant if you struggle to identify parts of speech. Second, it gives you a maximum number of adverbs for the length of section you input. I don’t follow this guide blindly, but it does help me see where I may have too many adverbs in succession. In this blog post for example I have 13 adverbs, far more than the recommended four. But, given the nature of this topic, I think even Hemingway himself would forgive me.

In conclusion, as with any tool in a writer’s arsenal, adverbs should be deployed wisely. If you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no need to delete every word that ends with –ly but it could be useful to ask yourself the questions above if you’re an adverb addict like I was.

How do you approach adverbs? And do you have any requested topics for the Writers’ Questions series? I’d love you to tell me—below, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


  1. Excellent, practical post! I've got my PhD in Victorian lit, so I know exactly what you mean. For us, the trick is to find that balance between pleasing modern sensibilities and being anachronistic. It helps that my day job is working with student writers, so I'm constantly trying to get them to be more succinct -- it can't help but rub off on me, no matter how much the Victorians may be inhabiting my imagination.

    1. Thanks, Cate! I like to imagine your dreams as a Students vs. Victorians showdown