Avoid Adverbs by Arline Chase

I’ve often wondered what exactly happened – when did using adverbs become taboo? Veteran author, teacher and mentor Arline Chase is going to explain it for us.

Most of you are too young to remember Tom Swift, but he is the reason for all that advice about avoiding adverbs, and especially avoiding a “said” followed by an adverb. Here’s an example from TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRIC RADIO

“That’s the spark!” Tom said, electrically.

This form was greatly in fashion in the 40’s and 50’s, but for today’s film and TV educated audiences, it leaves much to be desired in terms of an image and we all know images are good writing. Many editors consider this “lazy writing” and refer to such combinations as “Swifties” an allusion to the old Tom Swift novels which were very popular in the long ago. Editors have a full range of “Swiftie” jokes, i.e. “I’m too tired tonight, dear,” Tom said, limply.

Yes, back in the when, the best writers of the day used them. Swifties abound in Agatha Christie, and other best-selling writers who started in the WWII era. But editors who are buying today will not respond well to them. Now I grew up on Tom Swift, Brenda Starr, and Nancy Drew and have read any number of Swifties in my time. Used to write a lot of them too, until I heard some editors telling jokes at a conference.

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Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association. You can learn more about Arline on her website.

A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on November 28, 2009[subscribe2]

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7 thoughts on “Avoid Adverbs by Arline Chase”

  1. Stephen King addressed this issue in his book "On Writing". His answer is to rely on your deep wealth of knowledge gained from your extensive reading to find the descriptive verb that conveys your exact meaning. By using the right verb, you eliminate unnecessary verbiage, speed the narrative and improve the precision of the reader's understanding of your message.

    "Eschew obfuscation" is not the same as "provide clarity" but too often articles like this one provide only the former and not the latter.

  2. Today's readers are sensitive to dated writing.

    Although Swifties are technically correct, speech attributed in that sad way stalls tension and action like nothing else can. Readers are not so much in a hurry as that they want clean 'invisible' writing that conveys mental images and action crisply.

    Although we were taught that adverbs modify, they do quite a bit of qualification and description, which readers tend to resent – they can imagine it all very well for themselves, thank you! Yes – but there must be some kind of prompt. One can't write nothing. So it must be done without offending parts of speech.

    Hmm… the clever author must try to do it with several words, rather than just one ending in LY. It does work.

    "Lend me your pistol, will you?" asked Moira breathlessly.


    Moira held her breath, looked him in the eye and let air out in a long audible sigh. "Lend me your pistol, will you?"

    The odd adverb needs to appear every now and then, however, but perhaps not so it interrupts or slows down dialogue. After all, one must demonstrate one knows how to modify!

    [Be careful, by the way, when you comment. If you write that you prefer the top example, you'll be showing your age.]

    1. That's 1940's Kathy. But possibly even earlier. Dame Agatha wrote her early books starting in 1914 or so. I just READ them in the 1940s. 😉


  3. Adverbs and their overuse is a constant topic in out writers critique group. The newbies often take exception when it's mentioned but in time they get it – like I did, way back when. 🙂

  4. I just came across this absurdity in a book I'm reading: "the bewilderedly belated mother". I know these are adjectives, not adverbs, but it's the same type of problem. It's even hard to say. From a book published in 1949.

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