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Simple Tip #2 to Instantly Improve Your Writing

Image: Olu Eletu

Image: Olu Eletu

A writer friend of mine is slaving over a novel. He asked that I read the first page to see if it grabbed my attention.

It did — but the wrong way.

I counted 17 adverbs.

On the first page.

I found myself focusing on the adverbs — not the story.

Then I had to tell him what I thought…

I suspected I was in for a difficult conversation, but he showed grace under pressure. He appreciated the feedback.

I love Stephen King’s quote:

“The adverb is not your friend.”

This is important. Embrace it. Live it. Love it.

And in case you need a refresher…

English 101: Adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs or adjectives. Adverbs are easy to identify. Most adverbs end in -ly. And those are the worst offenders.

Writing 101: Adverbs undermine writing. They tease the writer into thinking they enhance descriptive language. They don’t. They weaken the writing.

Don’t get me wrong. An occasional adverb sprinkled here or there is acceptable. But overuse can kill a good piece of writing.

An Example

Check out the difference between these examples:

Example 1: The CEO walked away from the press conference, thinking about today’s announcement.

In Example 1, the writer conveys the facts. The writing is clean, but lacks emotion. But then — since writers second-guess themselves — the writer opts to add descriptive language.

96% of inexperienced writers turn to adverbs. (I made up that statistic, but I bet it’s true.)

Example 2 is the next iteration from an inexperienced writer:

Example 2: The CEO walked somberly away from the press conference, intently thinking about today’s announcement.

True, the writer has added descriptive language in this example.

But it feels forced.

And weak.

It lacks finesse.

A rewrite is in order. A rewrite that both eliminates the adverbs and places more weight on the verbs will infuse power into the sentence without sacrificing description.

Check out the rewrite:

Example 3: The CEO trudged from the press conference, absorbing today’s announcement.

The writing is clean.

It conveys emotion.

The reader knows that the CEO is not pleased about the news.

Simple Tip #2 to Instantly ImproveYour Writing: Kill the Adverbs.

Show no mercy.

Do a search for “ly” in your document.

A word of caution: Not all words that end in -ly are adverbs.

Then, at minimum, slash the adverbs. This will clean up your writing. It will feel crisp, powerful.

If you’re up for the challenge, substitute the verb-adverb combination for a more descriptive verb, such as:

  • closed firmly might become slammed
  • mistakenly said might become erred
  • We should definitely go after this client might become We are pursuing this opportunity

The Irony

Now I suspect you’re wondering why the title of this article includes an adverb: “Simple Tip #2 to Instantly Improve Your Writing.”

Good catch!

Some readers — even blog readers — respond best to hyperbole.

So though it rubs me to use the adverb, I want to help all readers improve their writing. So I employed the dreaded adverb, hoping to attract their attention.

But in the article, I show no mercy.

Remember: The adverb is not your friend.


Sometimes You Need a Little Creativity Boost

My free eBook might just help:

5 Exercises that Will Make You 10 Times More Creative

I use these exercises to keep the juices flowing — in myself and in my clients. (I am a marketing consultant, after all.)

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Bryan Searing