Avoid This Subtle Way of Telling Instead of Showing

If you’ve read even a little about the craft of writing fiction, or had an editor like me review your story, then you’ve no doubt had someone tell you, “Get rid of those adverbs! They only weaken your story!” But we all learned how to use adverbs in grammar class at some level, right?

So are they really that evil?

Short answer: Yes.

Adverbs—technically “manner adverbs” as we’re discussing them here—tell how someone acts or speaks, usually –ly words like “deftly” and “powerfully.” For example, “Jim deftly sidestepped the linebacker and ran for a touchdown” or “The speaker powerfully made his point known.”

Manner adverbs such as these are okay on rare occasions. However, it’s still best to avoid them if you can. How do you do that, exactly? Well, for the most part, you can use stronger verbs that show what the manner adverb tells. For example: “Jim juked” rather than “Jim deftly sidestepped.” Or, you can make sure the idea comes across in the words or actions in the context of the scene and delete the adverb itself.

While some manner adverbs in writing fiction are probably unavoidable, using them is one more way that it’s easy to tell readers rather than show them the story unfolding. That’s why they are so insidious, because when you tell instead of show, you’re severing the intimacy you’ve been building between your reader and the characters in the story world you’ve created. And that’s the death knell of reading a novel, giving your reader a good reason to put the story down and continue knitting an afghan or turning on the nightly news instead.

What about a solution to avoiding adverbs? First off, don’t worry too much about avoiding adverbs as you are in the actual process of composition. Just get the story down on paper, which I always encourage writers to do. After you’ve let your completed story sit for four to six weeks or so, then it’s time to review it and make your self-edits.

To try your hand at eliminating adverbs, do a document search for ly, and see how many you can rework. This method won’t flag adverbial prepositional phrases, such as “he said with a friendly tone,” so you’ll have to find those on your own. But doing an ly search will take care of most of these nefarious little writing demons, so have at!