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Paragraph Structure,
Part Three: Sentence Variety—Adverbs

by Nann Dunne

A majority of writing experts stress the importance of tight, concise sentences, where concise means more precise rather than shorter. Delete flabby words and phrases to build clean sentences that make a stronger impression on the reader, smooth the progression of the story, and clarify the expression of ideas. Granted, some readers enjoy ornate, artistically embellished wording, but they are the minority. Today’s readers tend to be more impatient; they want to get to the substance of the story without wading through purple prose or being told how to interpret an action that can be understood from the situation.

The overused adverb, a part of speech ripe for deleting or changing, happens to be a favorite of many writers. Adverbs are divided into several different groups, depending on their use in the sentence. If you have a hankering to know the different types, visit the web sites noted at the end of this article.

To simplify, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They answer the questions when, where, or how and often end in -ly. Though a -ly word sometimes nails the situation so perfectly anything else would weaken the sentence, writers need to take care in their use. They can be superfluous, and when -ly words are bunched close together within a paragraph or two, they muddy the writing.

Many -ly adverbs can be eliminated by transferring their descriptive intent to a stronger verb. Let’s revise a few examples to improve the strength of each sentence.

    1. She read the letter, sobbing heavily. Change to: As she read the letter, sobs wracked her body. (The original sentence is structurally poor. Is she or the letter sobbing heavily? If you try to fix it by putting "sobbing heavily" first, it sounds like she cried even before reading. Rewording the sentence solves the problem.)

    2. The bells rang happily as the children entered the church. Change to: Even the bells sounded happy as the children entered the church. (I stuck "sounded" in so a human could hear and be happy. Beware of attributing human responses to inanimate objects—or animals—unless you’re writing a children’s story, an allegory, or something just as lighthearted. Some authors tend to have "thinking" pets, but unless it’s carried throughout the story as a plot ploy, it’s considered amateurish. And so is the jumping back and forth with point of view that usually results.)

    3. In just a little while now, he would walk stoically to the gallows. Change to: Soon he would face the gallows with his chin held high.

    4. Traffic moved slowly. Change to: Traffic crawled. Or: Traffic inched. (Both of these verbs are well-worn in this situation. How about: Traffic stuttered along.)

Another misuse that tends to creep into the unsuspecting writer’s prose is tacking on adverbs to tell the reader how to interpret or react to a situation that is already clear. For example:

    1. "Stay out!" Mary shouted furiously, angrily throwing a vase toward the door.

    Readers know she’s furious. Readers know she’s angry. (Readers even know she shouted, but we’ll leave that in.) So let’s rewrite to:

    "Stay out!" Mary shouted and hurled a vase toward the door. If the writer has set the scene properly, the reader knows the rest without being led there by the hand. And if the dialogue has been set up so the reader knows Mary is speaking, the writer can leave out "shouted." Write: "Stay out!" A vase hurtled toward the door.

    2. Her eyes filled with tears. "Please don’t tell me that," she begged emotionally.
    Readers know she’s emotional. Readers know she’s begging. Readers don’t need—or want—to be inundated. Rewrite: Her eyes filled with tears. "Please don’t tell me that."

    3. He stomped noisily into the house.
    Can anyone stomp quietly? Delete! Write: He stomped into the house.

Get the idea? Maybe some readers like to have scenes spelled out, interpreted, and spoon-fed to them. Most people are more independent. They want to absorb the nuances of the story and figure out things for themselves. That’s how they make it theirs.

When your editor "slashes and burns," understand she’s urging you toward more professional writing. Be grateful, not irritated.

Other common adverbs that don’t end in -ly can be just as bothersome. Words such as: now, that, just, in fact, soon, also, too, even, etc., deserve a second look to decide how necessary they are to the sense of the sentence. When the sentence sounds all right without them, delete.

Slap down your initial choice of words on the first draft, but work your brain as you revise. Doing away with unnecessary adverbs can be a challenge to the writer as she scrabbles for more active descriptions. But her writing will improve, the publisher will welcome the professionalism, and the reader will keep buying her books. Hopefully. (Hey, that’s an -ly adverb, folks. But it adds a little pizzazz, don’t you think? Sometimes an adverb hits the mark.)

To learn all about adverbs, go to or; the latter site thoroughly explains adverbs and adverbial phrases and includes helpful quizzes.
© 2004, Nann Dunne
Excerpted from Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook
(a work in progress)

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