I am now editing for adverbs, as silly as that may sound to some people. :-) I have learned, 'by ear', that the advice to 'avoid adverbs' is actually not bad advice. But I am also learning that certain types of adverbs are more bothersome than others.

The worst are those following a dialogue tag.

"My father died," she said sadly.

'Sadly' may be redundant to the dialogue. The worst cases of this sort of adverb is when it is certainly redundant to the dialogue. "She said" may be sufficient.

The second worst are those in narrative that are sloppy shortcuts where some time spent could help your brain identify what it is that you are actually trying to say.

The horses nickered nervously.

This could be rewritten to express the idea of nervousness without adverbs, but perhaps the adverb is fine, especially as it lends itself to efficiency. But, the sentence could be "The horses nickered, and pawed at the ground." This might be an improvement, but any value in the approach seems to depend upon the instance.

The least offensive (to my way of thinking) are those within dialogue. If a character says "I'm really tired," it seems fine to me. Making them say just "I'm tired" or "I'm tired, so much so that I could fall asleep standing here" --- Neither of these seem authentic, since natural dialogue contains adverbs. My characters have permission to use adverbs.

Because I am scanning through for adverbs, I am finding some that should be changed, or cut. Others, I am less certain of. For example, in my draft, one exchange is as follows:

“Alright. Those ration canisters, each one is six meals. The lid’s the bowl, just mix in water. You got ten of those. The tent, the machete – It’s all standard.” The man clearly wanted to say more.

“Yes?” Bob said.

“It’s early. You wait a few weeks, there’ll be other folks on the trails. Safer.” The man’s words came out in a rush.

I bolded the adverb and its phrase, and the replacement phrase below. This can be edited to something like:

“Alright. Those ration canisters, each one is six meals. The lid’s the bowl, just mix in water. You got ten of those. The tent, the machete – It’s all standard.” The man fidgeted, glancing at Bob.

“Yes?” Bob said.

“It’s early. You wait a few weeks, there’ll be other folks on the trails. Safer.” The man’s words came out in a rush.

I have no idea how to assess which of these permutations is better, or if it even matters. If you have thoughts or ideas about the hierarchy of adverbs and how to assess edits of adverbs, I'm curious to hear them! Thanks!

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    I'd agree with your hierarchy, even if probably adverbs aren't always absolute evil. Anyway, I fear that "which type is worst" can easily become a matter of opinion and context; the answer could as well depend on your personal tastes. Good luck with your editing, tho!
    – Liquid
    Nov 22, 2017 at 10:47
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    @Liquid Yes, they aren't evil, I agree. (I also think telling is good! :-) ) I think I am learning that all these pieces of advice give us areas to examine, though, to make something easier to read and a better experience for the reader. I could be wrong! :)
    – SFWriter
    Nov 22, 2017 at 14:50

3 Answers 3


Adverbs within dialogue are fine, if real people use them (like really). I would avoid stuffing an adverb into dialogue, or using dialogue as a cheat to express with an adverb what should be exposition. The line "That horse nickered nervously," does not sound like something a person would say. They would more likely say, "She's nervous." or if you want to give them some expertise, "Look at her, she's clearly nervous,". (got an adverb in there!)

One of the problems with adverbs is they don't always point at an observer.

If I wrote The man clearly wanted to say more, on rewrite I would ask myself: Clear to whom? Bob? So I might rewrite, The man broke eye contact, and it was clear to Bob he wanted to say more.

All the adverbs have a adjective you can use instead. sad, nervous, clear, quick, rapid, loud, meek. When you edit for adverbs, remember they are shortcuts and typically used in speech because they are shortcuts. Find the adjective and write a sentence or phrase with it, instead. Or find the synonyms of it, and use one to describe it.

For "My father died," she said sadly I disagree that 'sadly' is not necessary. IRL I loved my father, but when I describe his death you will not detect sadness or anger in my voice, I can say "My father died thirty years ago," in a matter-of-fact tone.

Your context may be different, maybe her father just died yesterday, but even so describing the girl's demeanor and expression is an opportunity here, thrown away by the shortcut 'sadly' which is very ambiguous and non-impactful. You could describe her:

"John knocked and waited, smiling to himself about the joke the cabbie had just told him. Alice answered the door. Her eyes were red and puffy, bloodshot, her shoulders slumped. She had tissues balled up in her hand.

His cheerfulness vanished, replaced by concern. "Are you ill? Have you been crying?"

"My brother called me, and ... my father died," she said, and the grief in her voice almost broke it. The words triggered new tears. He stepped toward her to hold her, and she fell into him, sobbing.

Of course that might not fit your particular scene, but it is an example of how a lot of words can replace one adverb. When you edit for them, consider them an opportunity to have some fun, you don't have to replace them with just a few words or some grammatical rearrangement. You can replace them with whole paragraphs, and often you should do that.

I would generalize that observation as an aside: one of the worst misconceptions I see in new writers is this urge toward "efficiency" in writing. It isn't just the 'show don't tell' mantra, they also leave out what should be in there. That is the problem with monolithic blocks of back and forth dialogue, with nothing in-between or breaking it up, no internal thoughts, no silences, no actions of what people are doing or seeing or feeling as they speak.

In the interest of "efficiency" and getting through something quickly, they leave scenes under-imagined, meaning the reader is not seeing, hearing and feeling what you as the author intended, an under-imagined scene means you have not conveyed accurately what the characters are feeling and the changes they are going through. "Under-imagined" is a state the reader is left in, and sometimes because the writer failed to imagine the scene fully and fell into just dumping something on the page (like the text of a conversation). In that sense, for an author, adverbs should signal a place where they were 'telling' instead of 'showing'. e.g. telling me Alice was sad, instead of showing me through her actions and appearance that she is sad.

Readers don't care how many words they have to read, or if it takes you a whole page to get from John's remark to Alice's reply to that remark (I've seen that in published fiction). They just don't want to be bored by the writing, so what you write cannot be repetitive (or nearly repetitive; don't say the same thing using three synonyms for 'sad').

I know what I am about to say is fuzzy, but you want to convey the full scene using as few words as possible, but not fewer. So you want to discard irrelevant details (we don't care what morning show is playing muted on Alice's TV, or whether she is wearing shoes or barefoot, etc). If you can write something in fewer words by using a better adjective or metaphor or rearranging the sentence or breaking it up, do that.

But don't short-change the scene to save words. Try to keep in mind what is important and what you are trying to convey about the sensory scene (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc) and the emotional scene and mental context (relevant memories, thoughts, worries, priorities), and the physicality involved that reflects it (expressions, postures, interactive movement like for fighting, play, emotional or romantic contact).

You are 'efficient' when you can convey all that with as few words as possible, and cutting would mean sacrificing something important to the scene. The number of words depends on the scene, how important it is, and how complex it is. A carnival may take pages, or a standard hotel room just a short paragraph. Especially if the hotel room setting plays no significant part in the rest of the story, in which case it may not be described at all:

It had a bed, John dropped his luggage at the foot of it and fell into it. He woke about three hours later, found the bathroom and shower, then returned to the bed, set the alarm and slept another nine hours.

Most readers don't require a description of a hotel room that does not matter, and if John is exhausted by traveling for 36 hours or so, he would not be that observant anyway. What I am trying to say is, you have to pick what matters [makes a difference to the characters or events in the story], and find a way to describe everything that matters, but only what matters.

Bringing it back to adverbs: They are almost always shortcuts for telling instead of showing, thus they signal that descriptions that matter have probably been omitted, making the writing weak and under-imagined.

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    I agree! What the adverbs are helping me catch this time is that the imagined scene on my first draft is not the imagined scene as i reread it now. This is in part because the characters have grown through my process (and so a descriptor appropriate to an earlier version of the character is not appropriate to the more developed character). It is also down to our own (reader) POV never being exactly the same in different readings. Some adverbs I see now are downright jarring! I cannot remember what frame of mind or reference I had for them in the first draft. Thank you for the thoughts & time.
    – SFWriter
    Nov 22, 2017 at 14:47
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    Amazingly well-written answer and examples for people seeking advice regarding "show don't tell". This can help a lot of people, including myself.
    – storbror
    Nov 22, 2017 at 18:38
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    As with @storbror, pretty much saving this question just to come back to this answer later. I struggle with adverbs, and in particular with modifying them to be something better as you did in the 3rd paragraph.
    – ggiaquin16
    Nov 22, 2017 at 22:15
  • I'm struggling over some of this advice for 2 reasons. The idea of writing what the reader needs to know is good, but also a challenge. The reader may need to know it now, or in 3 chapters. Sometimes, I think the reader needs to know something only later to realize what I wrote was too on the nose to begin with. The reader needs to know it, but not so obviously. It's not easy advice. Second, I appreciate the 'more is more' approach of replacing adverbs with thoughts, but the example of "it was clear to Bob" introduces a future revision's focus, to not use passive voice! Heh. Still, +1. Thanks!
    – SFWriter
    Nov 24, 2017 at 17:57
  • @DPT That is what rewrite is for, and why you don't submit your first draft, but your fifth. Or fifteenth! On my current work, I killed half the first chapter with 'too much of what they need to know' and wrote two full chapters before it and most of a chapter after it, leading up to the same scenes as the first chapter, but with much better revealed, and some delayed to the next chapter. Again, I don't try to be "efficient", I don't mind deleting and rewriting, my goal is to produce a story I can read a month or two later and still have no quibbles with it.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 24, 2017 at 18:48

I would go with the adjustment you made, and agree with your assessment of taboo ranking. Adverbs is one of my own vices as well. The writer doesn't lose anything from what they are seeing, but the reader does. As a reader, I got a better image of the man in question from your replacement of the shortcut adverb.

Edit: it would appear I forgot to directly answer the topic question: How does one gauge the strength of any particular adverb?

There are few reasons to use adverbs in literature or public speaking. Adverbs are primarily a casual convention intended to shorten the amount of time required to express an idea. This gives every speaker more opportinity to weigh in. However, in cases where there is only one speaker, literature for example, there is only one speaker, and an almost infinite amount of time to express his/her ideas, so the time required to get the idea expressed just right is a luxury the speaker can afford. As such, there are few reasons to leave adverbs in a story beyond the first draft - if they are allowed to make it that far.

That said, there are certainly times where adverbs serve a literary purpose. The most notable of times is something that has already been addressed by the asker: making dialogue sound 'human.' However, this is not the only time writing can be improved by an occasional, well-placed adverb.

Consider what we are taught about writing structure in elementary school. The intro sentence (or paragraph) should have no more information than is needed to introduce the topic being discussed in the rest of the paragraph (or page.) If emphasize is needed to establish the severity of this point, it might serve to use an adverb in the introduction sentence, saving the 'long version' for the supporting sentence, instead.

The writer should always 'test' each adverb's usefulness to the overall paragraph or topic. Try replacing the adverb with a more detailed sentence. Re-read. Does the topic gain anything of substance to you? Does it read better or make your point more clear? If so, stick with the long version. If not, remove both the adverb and the long version. Re-read. Does the topic lose anything that needs to be addressed in that paragraph? If not, remove both versions. Basically, only use adverbs in situations where using an adverb is the only option that feels right to you, even after exhausting all other options.

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    I'm not really convinced about adverbs being little more than semantic sugar, but re-reading is solid advice.
    – FFN
    Nov 24, 2017 at 17:31
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    I think adverbs are great for first drafts - they usually get the idea you have, down on paper. I also like what you are saying about the structure we learn in school and how that applies. Thank you for the feedback on the edit I suggested. (Efficiency is so seductive to me, I love efficiency.)
    – SFWriter
    Nov 24, 2017 at 18:01
  • I agree with both of you on the merits of adverbs extending beyond what was covered by my answer. The topic appears to be asking about the final product, rather than a broader scope of adverbs place in language. First drafts are an excellent example of when adverbs are useful to a writer, but that usefulness is in the very fact that it <i>is</i> shorthand. The lack of clarity isn't problematic in early stages of development, because the only person that needs to be able to follow it is the one writing it.
    – JustinTime
    Nov 25, 2017 at 2:07

Think of a sentence like a Venn diagram. Each word you add to the sentence is like a circle added to the Venn diagram. Each circle added to the diagram should reduce the area that is common to all the circles. If the circle you add does not have any area in common with the other circles or does not reduce the area common to all circles, then is it not refining the meaning of the sentence.

Adverbs have no special status in the process. All parts of speech have a role to play in refining the meaning of a sentence, but not every part of speech is needed in every sentence in order to confine common area to the intended meaning.

A powerful word is a word that plays a big role in reducing the common area that defines the meaning of the sentence. A weak word is one that does little or nothing to reduce the common area. Sometimes, adding one powerful word can make several weak words redundant. In other words, those weak words no longer contribute to restricting the common area.

Sometimes those weakened words are adverbs and should be removed. But in other case, the most powerful word you could add to a sentence may be an adverb.

You gauge the strength of any word, not matter which part of speech, by the size of its contribution to defining the meaning of the sentence.

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