Thursday Writing Prompt No. 49

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Ah, the great adverb controversy. In case you haven’t heard about it, there’s a sort of “rule” that you don’t use adverbs in your writing. According to the Purdue OWL website, adverbs are those words that generally answer the question “How?” They usually end in “ly” and are easy to spot. (Did you see it?)

Of course, “no adverbs” is not really a rule, and it falls along the lines of splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, both of which are valid forms of English. However, enough writers subscribe to the idea that getting rid of all – or most – of the adverbs in your work is a good idea.

So, what is the case against adverbs? Because they can make for lazy writing. Common adverbs include very, usually, quickly, almost, fast, and slowly. The big problem is that they aren’t precise and they just don’t describe a scene in the same kind of vivid detail that a writer might be able to get from other word choices.

So, your task this week is to take something that you’ve already written, print it out, and highlight or circle every adverb that you can find. If you’re not sure what part of speech a word is, look it up in the dictionary. Yes, this week, there’s homework! Don’t groan; words are your stock in trade and learning more about them can only help you. Make it easy on yourself and select two or three pages of a story or chapter.

When you’ve identified the adverbs, try rewriting several of the sentences to make them punchier — and avoid using more adverbs in the rewriting process. What’s nice about this is that it will make you think more about how action happens. You can write “John ran quickly up the path,” but that’s a bit vague, isn’t it? Was he faster than a speeding bullet? Or just faster than the average turtle?

How about if you wrote “John tore up the path, sending a shower of pebbles across the lawn?” It gives a strong visual image, doesn’t it? The reader can imagine that if John ran fast enough to kick up rocks he was no slouch. Rewording sentences can add pop to your work, but don’t go crazy on eliminating all adverbs. They have a use, just like any other part of speech.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Writing Prompt No. 49

  1. Write a page of whatever kind of narrative you write — fiction or non-fiction — without any adjectives or adverbs. You can also take a few pages of narrative you’ve already written and remove all the adjectives or adverbs, rewriting your sentences as necessary. There’s more about this exercise in my book Steering the Craft, where I call the exercise Purity. I do think it’s the most scariest and useful exercise I know.

  2. That’s difficult to do, isn’t it? We don’t realize how much we rely on adverbs and adjectives in our work. I don’t think getting rid of all of them is necessary in writing, but as an exercise it helps a writer focus on what’s important and eliminate fluff.

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