Traditional Publishing

Adverbs of doom

By Dave Duggins
Editor, Spacesuits and Sixguns Magazine – Saturday April 28, 2007

I was doing a deep critique for a student in the Creative Writing Magnet at Woodside High School in Newport News, VA (hi guys!) when I saw them.

Them. Those – things. They mostly come out at night, but sometimes show their evil little faces in broad daylight. Impertinent snots.

I'm talking about adverbs, of course. Those words that end in “ly” and modify verbs. Messily, hungrily, angrily. Those words.

They are not your friends.

And why not, you may ask? At first, they seem kind of... nice. Like little helpers. You might think that dialogue attribution is a little unclear, needs a little qualification. He didn't just shout “Up yours, pal!” It was “Up yours, pal!” Bob shouted truculently. He didn't just slam the door when he left the room, did he? Certainly not. He slammed it angrily. June didn't just run from the dark, handsome stranger in the alleyway. She ran fearfully.

“Help!” she said.

No, no.

“Help!” June shrieked pleadingly.

See how quickly that gets old? It's like swallowing a teaspoonful of cinnamon when you really just wanted a sprinkle of it on your toast. You choke; your eyes water uncontrollably. Next thing you know you're rolling around on the floor, howling like a kicked dog, drooling, nose dripping...

Or is that teargas I'm thinking of?

While adverbs may not make you spontaneously dribble mucous, they are nonetheless unpleasant surplus... and 99 per cent unnecessary due to a wonderful phenomenon called context.

Context. This is a great word. All writers should love this word, because it's about what you didn't write. What you didn't have to write. Context means you can take a break, kick off your shoes, drink some lemon iced tea, watch the latest episode ofLost...

Okay, don't drift off to sleep on me. It's like this: if you build Bob's scene well enough, you won't have to tell readers Bob was truculent. You'll show them with the setup – the situation and circumstances surrounding Bob's comment (did you catch that “show don't tell” reference? Subtle, yes? I didn't just slide it in there. I slid it in there unobtrusively).

If June is running down an alley, being threatened by a dark, handsome stranger, do you really need to tell readers she was fearful?


Context. It's just one word that means you have some more words left over for tomorrow's session. And that's a good thing.

Getting rid of all your excess adverbs means you'll have ten pages left over at the end of your manuscript for meaningful, enlightening prose. And that's even better.

About the Author

Dave Duggins has been writing and publishing short fiction for twenty years. He's the editor of Spacesuits and Sixguns, a webzine of contemporary pulp fiction.

Recently retired from the Air Force, Dave now works full time as a creativity coach, helping writers through his coaching website at