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Fiction Writing Revisited

Adverbs are your friend that you need to break up with.


Another piece of advice fiction writers are told to follow is to remove adverbs from their writing. And in some cases, adjectives.


This again shows an ignorance of grammar. These are adverbs:


Very, hardly, barely, quite


Elegantly, slowly, expectantly, frequently


Up, down, south, northeast (in some cases)


Yesterday, tomorrow, tonight, soon


Well, poorly, there, then


The official definition of an adverb is “a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ).”


What the advisors mean is to get rid of words that describe actions with “–ly” on them. And generally, that makes sense if you can describe the actions in more concrete terms or by using a stronger, more visual or kinesthetic verb.


“He comes frequently” is inexact. “Frequently” depends on what is being visited: frequently for a restaurant might be once a week; for a dentist it might mean once every two months.


“He spoke loudly,” overlooks (and is therefore lazy) when there are many verbs that replace “spoke loudly”—screamed, shouted, called, roared, bellowed (get out your thesaurus here). At the same time, “spoke loudly” makes one wonder the “why” of the characterization. Is speaking loudly used to show anger, or lack of empathy, or the context (background noise), or a compensation for deafness? Does "speak loudly" say something you don’t really want to say?


What I am saying in these two posts is:

  1. think deeply about the why of word choice

  2. find the right word or better, rewrite so the use of whatever word you land on makes sense

  3. violate the rule occasionally; be subversive for a purpose.


I listen to a lot of Agatha Christie audio books to amuse myself when walking or driving. She used adjectives—the “-ly” type—waaaay too much. I’m sure someone told her not to, at some point, but why should she? They do seem like something from a bygone era, something polite that softens the edge of the writing, and often very awkward; very non-Hemingway, perhaps. I wonder if she did it on purpose to mock her own writing. (In her later books she has a character named "Ariadne Oliver" who is a detective story writer who is popular but less than scrupulous about her writing craft.) s.  


You might in the first draft think of an -ly adverb as a placeholder that will be rethought in the second or later drafts.


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Thanks for giving me permission to use adverbs. I spent days taking 250 of them out of my 4th or 5th draft only to have someone else add more. I'm still learning. So much to learn. And miles to go before I sleep.

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