JM Williams

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Lay off the adverbs, alright?


And by this I do not mean to repeat the age old advice that you should avoid adverbs like the plague. To the contrary, I mean for publishers and editors to remove the stick and to stop viewing every word that ends in -ly as some sort of moral affront.

I recently got a rejection letter for a story. The place–which will remain unnamed for obvious reasons–actually provided some great feedback on the story, which helped me to revise it some more. But one of the comments threw me off.

“far too many ‘-ly’ adverbs. If the writer is using that many it means they’ve used the wrong verb.”

This is the kind of thing that gets said in writing 101 classes to people who have never revised a story before. On face value, it is common sense. But is it?

First, how many is “too many”? Six, there were six -ly adverbs in the story. There were other -ly words in the text, of course: a couple adverbials, a couple uses of “only”. But the target of their attack was limited to a total of six words that somehow really irked them.

The next question to ask when looking at adverbs is whether there is a better word. The editor here suggests I was using the “wrong verb” in these places. Two of these -ly atrocities were forms of “slowly rise.” The meaning I wished to convey was that of a body or limb coming up in a not fast manner. What is the replacement verb for “slowly rise”? I checked my thesaurus both while writing the original text and when revising based on this feedback. I didn’t find a word that conveyed the meaning any better than “slowly rise.”

Another was “lick softly.” What is the replacement for that? Again, my journey into the thesaurus yielded no answers. There are literally two alternatives to lick, “lap” or “tongue.” Lap is too rough for my meaning, and tongue too messy and thorough. Neither are soft. So, again, what alternative is there to “lick softly”?

Another was “marched ravenously.” Which single-word verb can replace that? Though, in honesty, I replaced that sentence since it felt a bit corny. The point here is that it wasn’t inherently the -ly adverb’s fault.

I’m not new to the game. I understand the importance of word choice and will always choose a different verb rather than a verb-adverb combo, if it is available.

In this case, I am forced to conclude that the editor didn’t actually read these words and try to understand the meaning being conveyed. He or she simply saw an -ly and started screaming to his or herself. If they had thought about the meaning, they might have concluded, like I did, that these were the most efficient phrasings.

I will admit that in my revision, I cut most of these -ly words and restructured the entire surrounding prose to convey the meaning I intended without them. It felt like an unnecessary chore, and I’m not sure that the writing is not worse off for it. But I feel intimidated by this common habit in editors to cast off prose with -ly words in it just because they were told once in a sophomore class that it represents the worst of bad writing and never gave the idea a second thought.

Is that cowardly of me?

PS> I am grateful for the comments I received from the editors. Most places won’t give you a single sentence on your work. I almost feel, though, that the comments were written by two different readers. The one I gripe about here appeared at the end with the tag “Another note” in front of it, as if some senior editor felt obligated to jump in and tell me how bad my -ly’s were. 

“You didn’t tell him about the -ly adverbs!”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t really that…”

“We must protect the sanctity of genre fiction writing! Step aside peon, as I correct your mistake! Go to the meditation chamber and think deeply on your failures. Oh crap, I just did it myself! The world is ending!”

2 Responses to Lay off the adverbs, alright?

  1. Hear, hear! Sometimes an adverb is exactly what you need in a sentence. People who obsess whenever they see an “-ly” need to take a few deep breaths and remember what we’re trying to do here: communicate.

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