Free the Adverb


I’ve got myself in a bit of a muddle this week and I’m having a brain freeze about adverbs – the ones ending in ly.

The dilemma arose when I had a poem returned which had been submitted for feedback. Part of the feedback had red rings circled around two adverbs ending in ly. One of the ly words had the comment “adverb” next to it and later in the poem another ly word was outlined with “oh there goes another one.”

Having considered the feedback at length I was satisfied the two words in question were appropriate for the pace and context of the poem and the only (apologies for that one) reason they were being outlawed was for being adverbs.

With most creative writing texts, there is consensus that adverbs should be used with caution. William Zinsser in his book, Writing Well, states “most adverbs are unnecessary” and Stephen King takes the point further by suggesting “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Listen to conversations and the spoken word, on both television and radio, and words ending in ly appear to be commonplace. Therefore, if ly words are a regular part of language why do they cause so much consternation when they appear in print?

Take this quote from A.O. Scott about the late Robin Williams, “Mr. Williams was one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously, verbal comedians who ever lived.”

Or this famous haiku from Kobayashi Issa;

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

Both packed with adverbs, and in my opinion, all bringing depth and feeling to the writing and conversation.

Therein lies the dilemma. What is a wordsmith to do with adverbs?

Any advice would be GRATEFULLY received.


I suppose it depends on the verb you are choosing to use. If it doesn’t, in itself, convey your meaning, then it makes sense to qualify that meaning with an adverb (one or more even). Interesting topic, Davy. Food for more thought.

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    Thanks Roland and an interesting point to get the conversation going. I also think it depends as whether the poem is written to be said or read. I think an appropriate adverb adds to the flow of language when it may look forced when written.

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Oh how I can relate. I have read Stephen King’s On Writing and he is indeed against using adverbs in writing. But, did I listen to him? Uhm. No. Haha. I believe I have several poems and even fictions littered with adverbs and I don’t feel like I am committing a sin when I use them. 🙂 So… I think it is always our call, Davy. 🙂

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I love to use the Mark Twain test (I think it was Twain) replace any adverbs you have with ‘damn’. If it doesn’t sound right, you probably don’t need it. I’ll defy this when I feel that what I’m trying to say won’t have the same impact if that dreaded adverb is used. Some people are a little snobby about their use.

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Adverbs actually bring so much fun and joy to sometimes a boring piece of writing. What i am saying is, when uses appropriately it can be very helpfu.l. ( seeee the adverbs)..

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For me it’s about the voice I’m inhabiting at the time I write. Usually I enjoy being a little sparse perhaps even dry, to creep up on myself and have some meaning just be there between the lines. Sometimes I’m more effusive, generous, fully self expressed, and flush with adverbs…

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    That is an excellent point Rowena. The voice at the time of writing is very important and adverbs can be useful to bring to life a character or scene. Thank you for visiting and adding your insightful comments to the conversation.

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I have noticed that certain authors do not practice what they preach. Stephen King’s work contains many adverbs, especially the Dark Tower series. I am currently listening to a Robert Galbraith novel – who we all know is a nom de plume of JK Rowling – and this too uses adverbs extensively. I would suggest that they’ve done alright for themselves. I find it quite liberating to use them sometimes, if only to be a bit rebellious 🙂

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Another interesting subject, D! I did a random adverb-check on my old posts in

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Oh my goodness, oh my goodness! “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”–seriously?? Grammar argumentarians (made-up term) often make me think of denominational Christian churches which sincerely believe their doctrine is based on the Bible, but they pick and choose what they feel is of priority amid the tissue-thin Holy pages, and find more to disagree with each other about than to build unity (which must drive God nearly crazy some days).

Davy, you gave 2 Excellent examples of where adverbs added beautifully to the text they were included in–it would be criminal to remove them, as you’d lose all substance and heart-meaning. My advice–from an English major who has suffered plenty of criticism–“go with your gut/instincts”. I truly (adverb) believe you can “feel” within you whether an adverb serves your purpose–or detracts from it. There are times, before I post, that I toss adverbs I had originally put in–because I write like I talk…and on rereading, I’m glad I dispensed with the extra words. But if you Really FEEL that adverb, Davy, by all means leave it in–and shun any resulting criticism. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!! 🙂

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..clicked?! accidents happen.~ haha. Anyway, as I was saying…

I did a random adverb-check on my old posts in past months and I found out that I didn’t use adverbs, as much as I thought I did, in my poems. I guess the overall theme in one’s poem can also play a big part in the use (or not) of adverbs. In my case, most of my poems are indignant or intense hence the use of a more straightforward word and/or metaphor. Meanwhile, those I found with adverbs on them are written as too sweet, too romantic.

However, I found that in my short fictions… adverbs are everywhere! Regardless of the theme! I guess I tend to use them when I try to be more descriptive… and with adverbs, my fictions sounds better (to me) when read out loud.

Ha! This is a great reveal which I could use in developing my craft. So thank you, D!

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    You make some great points here Maria. I agree, adverbs can be a useful tool in developing the feel or flow in a piece of prose or poetry. At the end of the day their use comes down to the feeling of the writer. Thank you for taking time out to read and add to the conversation.


Well, I feel like a dummy! I should have read some books on how to write before I started my blog. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to use them. I’ve just more or less been aware to not use flowery language. Hmm. I’m going to be even more careful. I don’t write poetry, but some of my earlier posts DO have too many adverbs. But Davy, I agree with the others. It’s best to listen to your gut. Rules are meant to be selectively broken. I like your defense of using them – well said.

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    Thank you Laura. Don’t listen to the grammar police, they have been banging the same drum since the 1800s. Language is changing all the time and rules are there to be broken (most of the time). This is something that has been rankling me for some time and it is good to gauge what other writers feel about it. Thank you for taking time out to read and comment.

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Thanks, Davy. I think it’s good idea to read a few books, though. I started my blog on a whim. My college professors told me that I might like journalism. And instead of pursuing that, I had four wonderful kids and a lot of other adventures. Now, I’m winding my way back to writing.I sounded kind of belligerent in my comment above.I can get like that. 🙂

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    It didn’t come across as belligerent Laura. Reading is one of the key ingredients for writing. I have found a number of creative writing books I’ve read to be a little preachy and a bit pompous. One of the best is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. If you know of any good ones let me know 🙂

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Hi Davy, good question. In poetry, I think, adverbs and adjectives can colour your writing but they can also make our writing turgid. When a poem is littered with adverbs that’s usually a sign that the writer is telling the reader what to think. In short poems and short prose pieces I think it’s best to show rather than tell. I think a verb or a noun has more impact than an adverb. After saying that I don’t exclude adverbs or adjectives entirely from my own writing, they have a place.

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    Thank you David. I agree and think also it depends on whether the poem is being spoken or read. Sometimes a well placed adverb can help with the flow and emotion of a piece, but a verb or noun may be better placed to give it the impact. Sometimes it comes down to feel and experience. Thanks again for taking time out to visit the blog and for adding your valued comments.


You crack me up! Loved your post and especially your post-it notes. They really made me laugh – much appreciated. Wow! You have a special talent for touching a nerve. I love it. The posted comments are all so good. I believe as was stated above, the rules are meant to be broken, when needed. This issue reminds me of the taboo that music teachers have against “playing by ear”. They look down on it as second or third class and try and disparage those that play that way – and yet doesn’t it beg the question – “How did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven come to write their music if it wasn’t by, playing by ear?” The same goes for Art and Painters doesn’t it?

How many famous song lyrics would the Grammar Police ban for using adverbs? I can see a poster in the post office now of “Outlaw Adverbs” – Ha! If it sounds right and feels right you can just follow Nike’s advice and “Just Do It”.

I have found the very best defense against someone who wants you to do or not do something. There is never a good response for them. This is free advice and a personal opinion, “Thank you so much for you wanting me to do this, but I have prayed about it and the Lord has shown me that it is just not right for me!” How can you answer that??? No, he didn’t?? Or you can do as I do and say, “Hey, I just listen to the words the universe whispers to me on the wind and write them down!???”

FANTASTIC POST!! I’m still laughing.

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    Thank you Charles – “you have a fantastic talent for touching a raw nerve ” I think I may use that on any future advertising. I am still laughing as I am writing this. Thank you also for your in depth and insightful comments. Have a great week 🙂

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      Hey, that is a freebie for you, like you don’t already know it and love doing it. I have to say I do also but I’m light years away from being as good at it as you!

      You are so polite, It’s ok to tell me I’m long-winded! I’ve heard it before. Couldn’t help myself – Sorry it was just too funny!! Looking forward to your reactions to “Poemcrazy”. I’m looking forward to you next posts. You’ve set a high bar here you know???

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      Feel free to be as long-winded as you like Charles 🙂 My copy of poemcrazy arrived last week. I have read the first couple of chapters and I know I’m going to enjoy it. I will try to keep the bar high but sometime it may drop little.

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Haha, I guess this is why I don’t submit to poetry contests, too many rules! I prefer to write in a relaxed, journal style, focusing mainly on a feeling, than trying to be an actual poet. But thanks for the tip, in case I do uh umm, one day decide to “get serious.”

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What I write is right from my soul, I don’t think a word or re-read, I start writing, fast, just a waterfall, and shot. If adverbs appear in your poems, let them be because there’s where your heart decided to put them. At least, is my opinion 🙂

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I have heard this piece of advice and the Stephen King quote before and although I occasionally check I have decided not to worry about it too much. Or at all.
I write what I like, and if someone doesn’t like it because I didn’t stick to some rule that I never agreed to, then screw ’em.
Good post.

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    Thank you Martin. Your view is echoed by a number of writers who have commented on this post. I wonder if these rules are applied by publishers and people who judge poetry competitions?

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      Probably. I try to remember that books are read by readers, who may be critical but at least it is based on their experience of the writing, rather than the “rules”. The great thing about indie publishing is that agents, publishers and critics are no longer the gatekeepers of quality.

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      The same applies to poetry Martin. There are now so many different outlets for different kinds of poetry the mainstream publishers can’t dictate as to what people should be reading.

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Both my editor and an ARC reader flagged me on adverb use, specifically when used to further describe how someone said something. The word itself, “said,” is so boring I believe it practically begs to have an adverb buddy.

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I guess I really don’t have any rules I say to myself when I write, I tend to concentrate on the cadence, and ask myself is that particular word/phrase/paragraph redundant? (Oh, and how much do I want to reveal/conceal? as we have discussed earlier 🙂 )

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Very helpful discussion, Davy. Thank you for sharing the good, the bad, and the maybe. 😀

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