Writing Advice #13: Adverbs and Starting Actions

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


OK, gang! Here we are again, back for more writing advice.

This week: Adverbs!

Also: Starting actions!

“Ugh,” I hear you say. “Yuck,” I hear you say.

(And, truthfully, it bothers me to hear you say those things because that means you’re lurking around my house somewhere!)

Yeah, I know — these are NOT sexy topics. But they’re necessary.


Look, I know that J.K. Rowling has made roughly ten billion tons of cold, hard cash, and I know that the Harry Potter books are just DRIPPING with adverbs, but for God’s sake, people! Drop the “-ly” words! Keep your typing fingers where I can see them. Make no sudden moves. Step away from the adverbs V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y.

Stephen King beats the drum on adverbs in his book On Writing, and while I don’t have the almost-pathological hatred for adverbs that he has, I do find that they are misused and inappropriate more often than not. It’s not that the adverbs themselves are inherently bad (or dangerous). It’s just that new and young writers tend to mis-use them horribly, often to groan-worthy comedic effect. And that is NOT the reaction you want an agent, an editor, or a reader to have when reading your story, right?

In most cases, you are doing a disservice to your story and your readers when you use adverbs. When used properly, an adverb can be a very effective modifier that clarifies or illuminates. But adverbs are also a seductive shortcut for writers, and the results typically aren’t pretty, especially in fiction. Writers often use adverbs to substitute for showing as opposed to telling — this is a quick way to get a point across, but it robs the story of power and steals momentum from the reader.


She put her hands on her hips disdainfully.

That’s telling, not showing. Think about it for a minute — how do you put your hands on your hips “disdainfully?” How do your biceps and triceps and the ligaments in your elbows work differently when you move them “disdainfully” as opposed to just moving them? And be honest: You don’t really care HOW she puts her hands on her hips — you just want to work in the word “disdain” so that the reader understands that she feels, well, disdain at this moment. But when you look at what I just wrote above and the questions I’ve asked, you see that this is a nonsensical way to go about it. Might as well say that she did it “redly” or “loudly.” Honest!

Try it. Put your hands on your hips.

Now do so “disdainfully.”

What’s the difference?

If you’re being honest, you’ll admit that there’s no difference at all. You might claim that when you did it the second time that you did so with a swagger, or a glare, or some other action to communicate disdain, and that’s fine.

But those other actions have nothing to do with putting your hands on your hips!

She sniffed like she’d smelled something overripe and planted her hands on her hips.
She glared at him and put her hands on her hips.
“Go to hell. Take the shortcut,” she said as she put her hands on her hips.

See how those rewrites work? The reader will understand that she’s disdainful, disgusted, etc. without you having to come right out and say it. Don’t undermine yourself with words like “disdainfully.”

“But, Barry,” you say. (And again — just where the hell ARE you hiding?) “Barry, you cheated. You made a strawman argument there. Of COURSE it’s idiotic to say that someone put their hands on their hips disdainfully. But what about just LOOKING disdainfully? What about that?”

OK. Let’s try it:

She looked at him disdainfully.

Eh. Still sucks. It’s a little better than before because it doesn’t cause the guffaws of trying to figure out the biophysics of disdain, but it’s still so close to meaningless as to be, well, meaningless.

Think about this: What does it MEAN to look at someone disdainfully? What’s going on there, from a character perspective? Whose head are we in? The looker or the lookee? The feeler of disdain or the cause of it?

She glared at him, wishing she could melt him into the ground just by the force of her glare gaze.
She looked at him in such a way that Bill immediately knew how prairie dogs felt when the puma sniffed them up and down…and decided “Not worth it.”

There. Two different perspective, both written in such a way as to communicate the character and power of that look, but without wimping out and leaning on an adverb crutch. Don’t you feel like you’ve learned more about the characters this way? Don’t you have more invested in the story now? (And, yes, I’m WELL aware that I used an adverb in that second case — immediately. That’s the RIGHT way to use an adverb: To take a verb and modify in some important way that can’t be done another way.)

If you find yourself using a lot of adverbs, that usually means that you need to think about your narrative imagery and/or your verbs. Instead of “looked quickly,” use “glanced” (never “glanced quickly,” as the word “glance” denotes quickness already). Instead of “sighed heavily,” use “sighed like a rock star trapped at an accountants’ convention.” Tossing out the adverbs forces you to dive into richer, more evocative language. And richer, more evocative language keeps the reader interested, enticed, and, yes, turning those pages.

Starting Actions

OK, this is a rookie mistake, but I see it a lot and I hate to see it!

As a general rule of thumb, it’s not a good idea to have an action “start” unless you’re going to interrupt it. It just slows things down because it makes your sentences longer and more complex than they need to be. Look at this:

Depression began to settle in.

Why is it important that the depression STARTS to settle in? No one stops it, right? And you’re probably not going to jump in later to say, “OK, now at this point, the depression had finished settling in.” It’s a pretty simple image: Keep it so. Save complicated sentences for complicated actions.

Depression settled over him like a pall.

Doesn’t that do the job just as well? This may seem nit-picky and small, but anything that slows the reader down is an excuse for the reader to put the book down. And if a reader will put the book down, you can bet an editor or agent will, too.

He started to turn on the oven to cook dinner. He thought of Melinda and of the meerkat they had once loved together. Then he made dinner.

Um, er… Look. OK, maybe in real life we start to turn on the oven and then we think of something and then we finish, but all you’re doing here is the narrative equivalent of the dialogue-choking vines we talked about last week. You’re just confusing the issue, getting the reader all bollixed up. “Is he cooking dinner while he’s thinking of this? Is dinner going to boil over? Has he preheated the oven or what?”

He made another lonely dinner for himself, standing at the stove while it cooked, thinking of Melinda and the meerkat they had loved. Ah, Scampy! Poor little Scampy, who’d been abducted by the Department of Homeland Security for visiting forbidden web sites… He sighed and took his meal to the table to eat.

See? I’ve got this guy cooking his whole meal AND flashing back to Scampy the Al-Queda Meerkat at the same time, but I don’t have to stop-and-start any particular actions. Sometimes you’re better off just dropping in the process (“made another lonely dinner”) rather than breaking it down to its component parts and trying to describe each and every one of them.

OK, then. That’s it for this week! Next week, I think, will be “The Story Is Not Reality.” One of my favorite topics, and something most writers need to know. In fact, it’s something I have to remind myself all the time…

Leave a Comment