Word Discrimination, Part 1

Are some words better than others? Are certain parts of speech to be shelved, or even banned from our writing? You’d think so based on some of the most highly recommended writing instruction books available.

Not too long ago, an editor at a writers’ conference referred to one such book as his writing bible. The book in question? Self-editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This slender volume does, in fact, point to one particular group of words and advises against its use. Mostly.

I’m referring to adverbs, especially those that end in –ly. Here is the pertinent instruction:

Be on the lookout for –ly adverbs, for the sake of sophistication …

When you self-edit, you can root out these verb/adverb combinations like the weeds they are. The weak verbs that come to mind so readily can then be jettisoned in favor of stronger, more specific verbs — verbs that can say exactly what you want to say without help.

There are exceptions, of course … but even where the adverbs aren’t the product of lazy writing, they can still look like lazy writing, just because –ly adverbs have been used so often by so many hacks in the past (pp. 159-160).

Clearly, this piece of writing advice has merit. Verbs and nouns (subjects, in particular) are the centerpieces of every sentence and should be as strong as possible — that is, they should be as specific as possible so that they evoke a particular image.

For example, notice how the image changes for each of the following sentences:

    (1) The reporter sauntered into the office.
    (2) The reporter dashed into the office.
    (3) The reporter crept into the office.

Three different images, but the only word that’s different is the verb.

Would walked lazily, walked quickly, walked slowly have the same power to transform the sentence? Not at all. The right verb is infinitely more powerful than a “catch all” verb combined with a describer.

That being said, I think it’s important to mention two things here. First, Browne and King themselves said there are exceptions. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule that must be obeyed (for more information on this topic see “Are Rules Really Rules?”).

Secondly, there is subjectivity involved. One person may think the use of an –ly adverb has the appearance of lazy writing, is unsophisticated, or is a weed that needs to be uprooted, and another reader may think that construction is clear and precise.

My recommendation is two-fold. For beginning writers, after you have finished the rough draft of your story, search out –ly adverbs and eliminate them by utilizing stronger, more specific verbs. Without exception. Resistance to this step can lead a writer astray. It is too easy for us to rationalize, convincing ourselves that our adverbs are the ones that add clarity and precision. Digging out better verbs can be hard, time-consuming work, but better verbs equal better writing.

For more advanced writers, use –ly adverbs with intentionality. They might be necessary for clarity, but also for sentence rhythm or for conveying a character’s unique voice. The rule of thumb should be that adverbs you keep must add value to your work.

A final word. When critiquing someone else’s work, writers shouldn’t be too quick to apply a “writing rule.” As always, the overriding guide should be whether or not the piece (sentence, paragraph, chapter, or story) works. If an author paints a vivid scene incorporating an –ly adverb, it is not “wrong.” There are, in fact, no banned parts of speech. Adverbs, like other words, can work for the fiction writer, but first we must demonstrate mastery over strong verbs before we go about describing them.

Next time, adjectives.


Filed under Description, Word Use

8 responses to “Word Discrimination, Part 1

  1. Thank you, this is very helpful!
    God Bless,

  2. I’ve heard not to use walk, but to find another more vivid verb instead to show how the character walks, as in your example examples. Blessings, BJ

  3. Love it, Rebecca. Well balanced – mostly. ;-D

    Blessings for the help,

  4. 😆 Thanks, Elaine, very cute!


  5. Thank you for your comment, Barbara. “Walk” is one of the more abused verbs, to be sure, but there are others. I’ve had several projects in which the word “turn” is … quite popular, shall we say. 😉 Strong verbs really help readers see the scenes we see. Adverbs might sharpen the lens. Might!


  6. Charles, I appreciate the feedback. So glad to know you found some value in this post.


  7. Thanks, Becky. As an editor, I appreciate sound and moderated writing advice. “Off with his head!” need not send all adverbs to the guillotine. Writing will sing only if the writer learns to invoke strong verbs with moderated adjuncts, so that he shows–instead of the dreaded telling.

  8. I agree with your approach completely, Normandie. Thanks for weighing in on the subject.


Please leave a reply and share any articles you wish

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.